AIMPLAS develops a new recycling solution for aeronautics that will reuse up to 80% of thermoplastic materials

The Plastics Technology Centre has successfully finished the SPARTA Project, which was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme and included the participation of TEKNIKER and the collaboration of the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre.

AIMPLAS develops a new recycling solution for aeronautics that will reuse up to 80% of thermoplastic materials

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Compared with traditional recycling, this innovative methodology reduces energy consumption by more than 15% per recycled part. The resulting high-quality thermoplastic composites display a reduction of less than 10% in mechanical properties compared with virgin composites.

The aeronautics sector is now immersed in times of transformation towards greener, more efficient and safer mobility. The industry is constantly changing due to new technological advances, aircraft production rates and different regulations that aim to ensure clean skies and foster sustainable practices for the end of life of aircraft, among other factors. In this context, the use of thermoplastic materials as an alternative to thermoset compounds has increased sharply due to the advantages they offer in terms of strength and lightness, and because they can be reprocessed and recycled in a more efficient way, thus minimizing their environmental impact.

SPARTA Project – Scrap of thermoplastic composites materials

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Because the content of thermoplastic composites in aircraft is expected to increase, AIMPLAS, the Plastics Technology Centre, has produced, together with the TEKNIKER technology centre, a new methodology that provides a solution to the complex problem of processing these end-of-life materials. In fact, the European SPARTA Project has developed a process to recycle and produce high-performance thermoplastic composites reinforced with continuous carbon fibre such as polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), which was developed using automated deposition and reprocessing through compression moulding.

According to Rocío Ruiz, principal investigator of the project at AIMPLAS and a researcher in sustainable and future mobility, this innovative solution, funded by the European programme Clean Sky 2 (CS2), makes it possible “to progress towards green recycling and obtain new high-quality thermoplastic composite products manufactured with recycled materials in which up to 80% of waste is used compared with other recycling methods, and with 15% to 20% lower production costs than current mechanical recycling and scrap reprocessing processes due to automated manufacturing processes and fewer operations”.

Secondary materials obtained through conventional mechanical recycling methods such as shredding, electrodynamic fragmentation, laser cutting and machining have lower mechanical properties. Moreover, these recycling processes require intensive energy consumption. Thanks to this new method, significant results can be obtained compared with the mechanical properties of the virgin compound with a loss of mechanical properties of less than 10% in terms of tensile strength and modulus of elasticity.

In addition, the methodology developed by AIMPLAS cuts processing times by up to 50% by reducing the number of steps to recover waste and reprocessing it using more efficient automatic methods. The method also reduces CO2 emissions by up to 30% thanks to the reuse of all waste and reduced demand for the production of virgin material.

A solution for the sustainable economic growth of the aeronautics industry
“It’s important to avoid current practices of landfilling and incineration of composite materials and to promote the development of a profitable recycling method and thus extend the useful life of materials and foster the circular economy. The results of this project are totally in line with the ambitious challenge of creating a cleaner aircraft industry through ecodesign and the optimization of processes and resources to promote the competitiveness and sustainable economic growth of the aeronautics industry. Moreover, the results of the economic and environmental impact assessment using the cradle-to-grave approach will make it possible to update the cross-cutting activity ecodesign database set out in CS2,” Ruiz said.

AIMPLAS, the project coordinator, will also be responsible for analysing the properties of the end product and preparing a guide with ecodesign recommendations to enable industrial scale-up of the process. The centre participated in this project with the TEKNIKER technology centre and collaborated with the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre.

The results of this project, which successfully ended in October after two years of research, have been shared at several leading events in innovation and the sectors of technology, materials, aerospace and defence, such as MetalMadrid, Aerospace & Defense Meetings, the 20th European Conference on Composite Materials (ECCM20), the 16th Spanish Materials Congress CNMAT 2022, and the 12th International Conference on Innovation in Aviation and Space for Opening New Horizons (EASN).

This project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and investigation programme within the framework of the Clean Sky 2 Joint Technology Initiative and grant agreement number 887073. This initiative is in line with SDG 12 on Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG 13 on Climate Action, and SDG 9 on Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

More information www.aimplas.es