28 June 2021 – This month marked the start of the €5.3m VIBES project which aims to develop a green solution to resolve the end-of-life issues of thermoset composites and decrease the amount of non-biodegradable polymers sent to waste by at least 40%.

The use of composite materials has grown substantially in recent years. These materials offer high mechanical strength at a lightweight; in addition, the lack of corrosion – even in extreme environments – often compares favourably to metals. This has seen these materials find considerable uptake in high-technology applications such as aeronautics, automotive, construction, marine and naval, energy and sports science. As the demand for increased fuel efficiency rises, it seems inevitable the demand for these light but strong materials will also rise to match.

However, these composite materials currently present a problem at end of life. Unlike plastics, they are made of up of a combination of materials -a polymer matrix combined with a reinforcing material. This means they cannot be simply melted and recycled, as is the case with most plastics. To become useful, they need be separated into their component parts; a challenging process. The challenges in doing this mean that currently most waste composites are simply sent to landfill or incineration; this accounts for almost three-quarters of waste. With Europe’s aspirations to become a circular economy, this is not an acceptable solution. If the increase in their use continues, there needs to be a more effective way of handling waste and making it part of the circular economy.

The VIBES project offers an innovative approach to this challenge. It has developed a technology for the controlled separation and recovery of composite material components by means of developing customised biobased bonding materials. These new materials can then be decomposed to their component parts using temperature, UV or electrical pulses, allowing matrix to be separated from the reinforcing material and will assist in the detachment of the polymer chains of the resins. The resulting products can then be used as feedstock for other processes.

The VIBES consortium, led by AITIIP Technology Centre (Spain), comprises 13 industry partners across seven EU member states (Spain, France, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Greece), three research and technology organisations, and University of Limerick:

  • Dr Maurice N Collins and Dr Mario Culebras, School of Engineering and Bernal Institute,  University Of Limerick

This project has received funding from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, under Grant Agreement N° 101023190