Carbon fiber became the name of the game when F1 teams began utilizing it in their body kits in the '70s. In essence, it's just a weave of carbon atoms strung together tightly — it's stiff, it's strong, and it's lightweight. These qualities make it the perfect material to utilize in a competitive medium where the designers have to keep things aerodynamically sensitive.
And since it's pure carbon, you'd guess that it's an ecologically friendly appliance, right? Well, while that is partly true, the material also has some rough edges when it comes to recycling it.
The problems with recycling
One would expect such a widespread material like carbon fiber would have an automated manufacturing process. Well, that's not the case at all; it has to be laid up by manual labor.
How it works is something like this: A human takes sheets of carbon fiber and stacks them together, uses a plastic polymer resin to make everything into a monolithic body of carbon fiber.
You know how the saying goes, "to err is human," so it's only normal that a manual-labor-dependent process has imperfections that lead to scrapped materials. See where this is going? To make the carbon fiber sheets fit a competitive scene we run them through a trimming process.
On top of this, it's not exactly a material you can melt and reshape. Carbon fiber can be recycled, but it takes specialized handlers that know their way around recycling composite materials.
Two companies YCOM, motorsport design company, and Bcomp, natural fiber composite company, announced that they are moving towards developing a naturally sourced alternative to carbon fiber. Their composite material has been doing fine in crash tests too.
The main component of this composite called 'ampliTex' is flax. The plant has recently been utilized in vehicles with a company utilizing flaxseed fibers in their motorcycles' body kits. It has also recently surged in popularity as a healthy food especially in regards to its benefits to digestive inner workings of the body. When processed, it can be transformed into a low-elasticity sturdy fiber with a smooth texture.
Still, for these fibers to make do in a competitive field, they need to be reinforced. Bcomp handles this part with its 'powerRibs' technology. When paired with the ampliTex technology, the gridded sheet of textile made into thick pieces of yarn reportedly can "triple the flexural bending stiffness and thereby decrease both material use and weight, while improving vibration damping."
You can watch this material's first Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) approved crash test below.
The test results have been positive so far. As an added benefit, flax composite fibers didn't splinter during the crash the way carbon fiber does. Those flying about from carbon fibers are usually pointy and a nuisance to deal with. The main disadvantage of the novel composite is its weight at this point. It has to be about 40% heavier than its carbon counterpart to provide the same level of protection.
Time will tell how this development process goes.