Laura Saviano, CEO and co-founder, Korec

JEC Composites Magazine interviewed Laura Saviano, CEO and co-founder of Korec, an Italian company based in Tuscany that invented a new technique to solve the long-standing problem of fiberglass waste recycling, particularly in the marine industry.

Laura Saviano, CEO and co-founder, Korec

9 minutes, 10 secondes

Graduated with full marks in Industrial Chemistry at the “Federico II” University of Naples (Italy), Laura Saviano has been as well an environmental consultant for almost 20 years working to solve intricate and delicate environmental issues for companies both in terms of authorizations and anti-pollution systems. She had previously gained significant professional experience at one of the most complex oil refining companies (Eni & Q8 Joint Venture) where she also acquired experience in the technical and economic feasibility studies of new investment projects. Today Laura Saviano is the CEO and co-founder of Korec, a company developing a process to recover resins and fibers used in composites, particularly in the marine industry.

JEC Composites Magazine: Can you tell us what are the origins of your interest in recycling and specifically the GRP recycling? What was/is your aim?
Laura Saviano:
“We have been working for years as environmental consultants in the fiberglass industry. Through direct experience as well as from our customers, we understood that the main problem of fiberglass , although quite appreciated and utilized for its excellent properties, was the non-recyclability.

In some applications, composite materials are preferred over classical materials. Their use would be almost obligatory when high performances with reduced weights are required, but the lack of solution to the recycling of GRP is the great obstacle: it can be an handicap to the development and continuation of use of the GRP and can be an obstacle for new applications. Known the state-of-the-art experiments, the limitations and critical issues presented, we realized that an effective way of recycling should have been recover the original raw materials from the composite so that they could be recycled in the same initial production cycle. Recovering the resin would also give the process that economic sustainability not achieved by other technologies which, for this reason, cannot be industrialized.

The two-step process includes depolymerization to separate the organic portion as a liquid from the fibers, which undergo calcination for the removal of coke and the separation of inorganic fillers.
The two-step process includes depolymerization to separate the organic portion as a liquid from the fibers, which undergo calcination for the removal of coke and the separation of inorganic fillers.

Thus, starting from our idea, we decided to ask our Department of Industrial Chemistry of the University of Naples for collaboration to start together a research group aimed at verifying the feasibility of our idea.
I remember that Prof. Elio Santacesaria (former President of the Industrial Chemistry Degree Course and of the Italian Chemical Society, Industrial Chemistry Division) accepted with great enthusiasm to share this challenge with us. The results of our first research were promising and so we built a small pilot laboratory plant to verify the possible performance of the process.

We immediately understood that the solution identified could be disruptive for the world of fiberglass by contributing in a substantial manner to solve the problem of non-recyclability. Since then we have faced a steadily uphill path, from the long and tiring patent protection, to the realization of a larger pilot plant necessary to deepen and continue our experimentation, acquire and process as much information as possible. We were aware that the world of composite materials is vast. It was necessary to consider that the composite products at the end of their life often appear as a mix of materials not easy to dispose. With our pilot plant, thanks to the coordination of our technical director dr. Antonello Dimiccoli, we have successfully tested over 60 different types of composites in three years, including sandwich panels also containing core materials of different expanded polymers. Being a new process, the path towards improvement is continuous, but by now the technology is ripe for industrialization and we are really satisfied to have come this far, being able to provide a truly sustainable solution to the world of fibreglass composites.”

JEC Composites Magazine: In your opinion, what are the special challenges facing the sustainability matter?
Laura Saviano: “According to our personal experience, we know that the producers of composite materials are now worried not so much about the costs of disposal in landfills but precisely by the fact that the lack of recyclability puts the survival of the sector at risk. Several companies have been forced to renounce participation in public tenders where the use of recyclable materials is required; other sectors, such as the automotive sector, have been forced to drastically reduce the use of fiberglass due to stringent European regulations that require the vehicle to be recycled at the end of its life.

Therefore, finding a viable, environmentally and economically sustainable recycling solution becomes truly fundamental for productivity and is now a differentiating factor to able to build a new competitive advantage on international markets of composite materials.

Rivierasca industrial waste, in the shape and size with which they are introduced into the Korec plant
Rivierasca industrial waste, in the shape and size with which they are introduced into the Korec plant

A recycling route is needed, like this one, which can handle large volumes of waste and not methods that recover raw materials with limited fields of application. This process can be economically sustainable thanks to the enhancement of the recovered resin that can be directly re – introduced into the production chain. Moreover, it is essential to spread this technology to eliminate the volume of FRP waste in landfills and incinerators and reduce the process carbon footprint of the fiberglass supply chain (virgin resins are product of fossil origin). From a strategic point of view for the entire supply chain, an element to facilitate the circular economy is the definition of a clear and simple legislative framework as well as incentives and obligations to encourage increasing shares in the use of secondary raw materials for recovery. The government should intervene in this. Finally, the extended responsibility of the producer has also become a tool in function and at the service of the circular economy, necessary to close the cycle and achieve recycling targets.”

JEC Composites Magazine: Changing conditions are forcing us to seek out new solutions and use our resources more efficiently. How do you think your project can achieve this aim?
Laura Saviano: “Just think of the crisis we are experiencing in the availability of raw materials and their price increases, which is putting entire industries in serious difficulty (from electronics to cars). This crisis is experienced by the composite materials sector as well, starting with the unavailability of the raw materials to produce virgin resin. A recycling process that recovers part of the resin contained therein from the thousands of tons of waste existing today certainly goes in the direction of compensating partially for such difficulties.”

JEC Composites Magazine: Can you explain us how your system works? What are your primary objectives?
Laura Saviano: “Our process is a thermo-chemical depolymerization whose particular innovation lies precisely in the recovery of resin, in the form of an organic liquid fraction, that, as a reactive blending component, can be blended with virgin prepolymer-resins and take part in polymerization reactions that produce new thermosetting composites and so, in other words, can be reintroduced into the production chain of composites. This is what specifically makes the process economically more sustainable!

A first phase is a depolymerization which occurs with the use of carbon dioxide and without chemical reagents.

In this step, the polymer (organic part) is fragmented, producing vapors that, after condensation and purification steps, generate an organic liquid, that can be mixed with virgin resins (orthophthalic, isoph¬thalic, and vinylester) to take part in new polymerization reaction for new composite products.

Side products are uncondensed gases and residue that, in part, cover the energy demands of the process itself.

Downstream the purification step, the process is able to separate and recover also Ftalic Anhydride, also reusable, like liquid and fibers.
After the first depolymerization step, a second calcination phase treats the fibers for the removal of the organic residues and the inorganic fillers deposited on the surface of the fibers, obtaining free and clean fibers.
The material balance of the process shows that this technology is able to recover 65% – 80% by weight of inbound resin (percentage expressed in relation to the organic component contained in the original composite) and more than 95% of the fiber present in the waste.

The purified liquid is clear and can be added to virgin isophthalic, orthophthalic, and vinylester resins.
The purified liquid is clear and can be added to virgin isophthalic, orthophthalic, and vinylester resins.

Fillers, if present in composites waste, will generate residues in a range from 4% to 7% in total.

The recovered organic liquid is a blendstock that shows excellent miscibility and compatibility with virgin resin and polymerizes in mixture with orthophthalic, isophthalic or vinylester resins.

The process, as it operates, is aimed at maximizing not the gaseous phase but the yield in reusable organic liquid product. Furthermore, as a synergic effect of the operating conditions that are not particularly strong, the fibers are recovered without excessive mechanical degradation and even the carbon fibers have been found to have performance characteristics comparable to the virgin ones. This is also a great achievement compared to other proven technologies.

Thanks to this technology the environmental impact is strongly mitigated:
a. there is an elimination of the volume of FRP waste in landfills and incinerators;
b. no hazardous chemicals are used during the process;
c. incondensable gases and residues are used for internal energy recovery;
d. atmospheric emissions are easily reduced by EU Best Available Techniques (the available techniques which are the best for European Commission for preventing or minimising emissions and impacts on the environment, see reference documents BREFs) and fully respect the limits imposed by European law;
e. there is reduction of the process carbon footprint of the fiberglass and composites supply chain (virgin resins are products of fossil origin).
After the process development phases with the experimental pilot plant, we are happy to announce that a great milestone has been reached by Korec with the construction of the first industrial plant in the world.

Korec, in partnership with the HTE company, has built an industrial plant at Rivierasca Spa in Bergamo. Rivierasca is a company that has been producing fiberglass laminates since 1963 and has always been very sensitive to the issue of recycling using sustainable technologies.

We were lucky to meet a farsighted entrepreneur with great technical and managerial skills who believed in the great potential of the Korec process and who, after various checks, enthusiastically accepted the challenge of using our technology for the treatment of their industrial waste. and produce recycled fiberglass laminates.

After calcinations, glass fibers are recovered perfectly white and clean
After calcinations, glass fibers are recovered perfectly white and clean

At a predetermined concentration of CO2, sufficient to guarantee an adequate chemical-physical interaction of the fiberglass, the Rivierasca waste is treated at suitable process temperatures so as not to alter the necessary characteristics that the products recovered at the outlet must possess for their usability.

The loading takes place with large pieces, compatible with the inlet diameter of the reactor, and no grinding is necessary for the good end of the thermochemical reaction.

The technology is modular and offers capacity to expand processing capacity.

Thanks to the experience acquired by Korec on the pilot plant and the criticalities already identified in the experimental phase, the design of the industrial plant was able to take place taking into account the limitations presented by some types of fiberglass. We can say with satisfaction that the start-up testing operations thus took place successfully without major surprises, with the exception of a leak on a fan and fouling of the purification line, which were promptly resolved.”

JEC Composites Magazine: You developed an innovative technology, are you planning coordinated activities with the composites industry?
Laura Saviano: “Yes, we are developing strategic partnerships both with virgin resin producers to optimize the characteristics of the Korec resin / virgin resin blending, and with fiberglass producers to achieve the performance characteristics required by the various production sectors. In fact, resins have wide fields of application and each industrial sector imposes specific and well-defined characteristics on the final product, depending on the uses and destination: the performance requirements of the finished product are many and different each time, depending on the destination of the product. market.

Korec technology industrial plant at Rivierasca Spa
Korec technology industrial plant at Rivierasca Spa

The same collaborations are also underway for the management and enhancement of recovered fibers.”

JEC Composites Magazine: Which is your strategy for the future?
Laura Saviano:
“The patented technology will soon become a necessary standard for everyone in the fiberglass market. Our goal is to spread it both by granting patent licenses by providing a complete service with “turnkey” systems that we can create thanks to the partnerships established with consolidated General Contractors; and through direct participation in the construction of plants for the management of industrial waste and end-of-life products.

We are already at work with the design of additional industrial plants both in Italy and abroad.”

More information www.ko-rec.com