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If Apple Replaces Aluminum with Carbon Fiber Can it be Recycled?

April 11, 2011

Apple filed a patent for a carbon fiber case in 2009. There were lots of rumors of Apple devices using the material but they all proved to be false.

News reports this week have Apple hiring a composites engineer named Kevin Kenney (who has consulted with Apple and has expertise with carbon fiber bicycles). Carbon fiber is a terrifically strong and lightweight layered material that would likely be a good replacement for the aluminum the company now uses for its laptops and i-devices. You can read more about it in Apple Insider and 9 to 5 Mac among others. Of course, a Google search also indicates that Apple has been testing carbon fiber for a long time and even filed a patent in 2009. But the real question for those of us who have to deal with older machines is – can laptops or idevices with cases made of carbon fiber be recycled as e-waste?

Aluminum, after all, is infinitely recyclable, and Apple uses Aluminum in virtually all its products. The MacBooks are made of ONE PIECE of the material, in fact. Amazingly lightweight yet very strong. But as one of the articles I read pointed out, Apple may be at the end of the line with aluminum – it just can’t be taken any further.

That’s why Carbon fiber, which offers great durability, extreme strength and weight savings would be a great replacement. The ideal material in fact. But although it’s been used in airplanes and many other products, it’s been slow to come to computers – until now.

In the “olden days” of the last decade, carbon fiber that had reached end-of life for whatever reason was buried in a landfill or even burned.Government regulators here and abroad stepped in the 2007-2008 time period and nowadays, there are good alternatives to recycle carbon fiber. I’ll copy the Wikipedia offering below, but basically, the material can be deconstructed and then turned back into new carbon fiber material that – while not as strong as the original – can still serve many purposes – including laptop cases!

In 2006, you could buy a sticker for your MacBook that made it LOOK like it was made of carbon fiber. In another few years, you may actually be able to buy one whose case really is made of the recycleable material (thanks, SlashGear).

My hope would be that when (not if) we start getting Mac laptops made of this material, and it becomes e-waste, that the Montgomery County Transfer Station will be able to take it for recycling. Given the track record and recycling requirements, they likely will – but it is worth having the conversation now so that when more of this material starts showing up as e-waste, it can be handled properly.

Now – here’s what Wikipedia says about carbon fiber and recycling:

Carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRPs) have an almost infinite service lifetime when protected from the sun, and, unlike steel alloys, have no endurance limit when exposed to cyclic loading. When it is time to decommission CFRPs, they cannot be melted down in air like many metals. When free of vinyl (PVC or polyvinyl chloride) and other halogenated polymers, CFRPs can be thermally decomposed via thermal depolymerization in an oxygen-free environment. This can be accomplished in a refinery in a one-step process. Capture and reuse of the carbon and monomers is then possible. CFRPs can also be milled or shredded at low temperature to reclaim the carbon fiber, however this process shortens the fibers dramatically. Just as with downcycled paper, the shortened fibers cause the recycled material to be weaker than the original material. There are still many industrial applications that do not need the strength of full-length carbon fiber reinforcement. For example, chopped reclaimed carbon fiber can be used in consumer electronics, such as laptops. It provides excellent reinforcement of the polymers used even if it lacks the strength-to-weight ratio of an aerospace component.

  1. althegeo
    April 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    You take the reclaimed carbon fiber, burn it, capture the CO2 and use it to pressurize the soda-pop industry.

    Another recycling problem solved.

  2. April 11, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    A waste product produced by Aluminum processing is Fluoride. It costs a lot to properly dispose of it.

    Instead, the industry has figured out a way to get paid for disposing it instead; It recycles it. It does this by selling it to municipalities, to water bottlers, and to the toothpaste industry.

    By this means the toxic waste is spread out all over the world, with the idea — scientifically unsupported — is that its dispersal world-wide will pose no danger to humans, animals, plant life, or the environment in general. If its ingestion or exposure is a risk, it’s up to those likely effected to prove that there are any dangerous effects, not the Aluminum industry to provide proof that it’s safe. So far, the industry has not proved that it’s safe.

    Known as an environmentally aware corporation working on improving sustainability, perhaps Apple wants to avoid adding to the creation of the Fluoride toxic waste product leading to weaker bones when ingested.

  3. April 12, 2011 at 12:01 am

    For me the question becomes: what will it do with the heat?

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