How a sustainable alternative to carbon fibre could offer other benefits to motorsport

2022 F1 season

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Carbon fibre is a dream material for making strong, light car parts quickly from computer designs. There’s no other material that really compares in terms of manufacturing, speed and cost, which also has the properties to actually make itself useful.

But as the world seeks to reduce its reliance on and production of carbon, is there any alternative to it for racing purposes?

Plastic could never be a replacement – it’s too heavy and not rigid enough. While graphene mixed with carbon fibre can make a stronger composite, it doesn’t really present an effective option on its own. A strong, lightweight, relatively cheap to manufacture (compared to forming metal) material like carbon fibre is basically unbeatable when it comes to making race car bodywork.

Even so, carbon fibre does have some downsides when it’s on the car. When it breaks it produces a shower of shards which create a significant debris problem, each splinter a puncture hazard.

In series like F1, where teams are keen to keep their designs secret, spraying bits of your race car across the track is undesirable. In a spec chassis championship like IndyCar, Formula E or the vast majority of junior series, the disposability of carbon fibre elements means enormous piles of parts are produced most weekends.

Formula E’s overflowing carbon fibre recycling ‘bin’ following the 2022 Diriyah double-header
In real terms, carbon fibre waste amounts to nothing like the main carbon cost of racing – that will always be international logistics and trackside set-up, followed by factory power consumption and computing. But it is not good optics, especially for an environmentally-marketed series like Formula E, to be throwing away bits of the carbon it says it’s trying to offset or negate into a bin every weekend.

Teams have no reasonable motivation to want bits of their broken Formula E chassis back most of the time, as most of the elements likely to come off – the front wing, wheel covers and diffuser on the ‘Gen2’ car – are entirely spec and only differentiated by the livery wrap on them. Anyone who’s been to an Eprix will know it’s amazingly easy to collect even quite large parts of race cars if you fancy an impressive souvenir; a friend of mine has the front wing which Lucas di Grassi nudged title rival Sebastien Buemi with at the 2016 finale. I’ll admit I have a pile of interesting shards I’ve brought home in the pocket of my hand luggage.

In environmental terms, however, collecting carbon fibre is a pretty toxic hobby. So after seven seasons, Formula E has begun collecting and recycling its stockpile of broken car parts. Through a partnership it formed during 2021 with Gen2 Carbon, it is now addressing parts collected and stored since the series started in 2014. Although I did see some delighted-looking Mexican fans taking home front wing souvenirs at the last race, in theory these could now be recycled into new forms of carbon fibre and non-woven fabrics.

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BMW’s flax fibre cooling shaft, introduced for the 2019-2020 season
Outside of racing carbon fibre is (rightly) viewed as an expensive material. The regular destruction of such a costly material – not just in Formula 1 but down to relatively budget-restricted GT racing – would cause surprise in other, more conventional industries.

A less expensive, more sustainable alternative to carbon fibre with similar properties would be a desirable option for teams and manufacturers. Although there isn’t one suitable for F1 bodywork yet, progress is being made.

For manufacturers, especially keen to present a cleaner image, developing sustainable composites in race conditions both promotes the idea of road relevance for their racing programmes and reassures customers they’re not being fobbed off a product which puts hippie credentials ahead of rigorous safety standards.

Swiss company BComp originally set out to make an alternative to carbon fibre for skis. With no background in motorsport, they didn’t have any intention of making something which would be useful for bodywork but have gradually moved into the space. I first saw their flax composite, which uses natural rather than carbon fibres, in the roof of the somewhat haphazardly racing-adjusted Tesla that was attempting to spark interest in Electric GT back in 2017. The company went on to strike a deal with Porsche to provide the complete bodywork and interior for a GT4 car.

As well as its environmental benefits, BComp’s composite has a major advantage for motorsport applications: It tears on impact, rather than shattering, reducing the risk of sharp edges being scattered around the track.

For contact-heavy GT racing that means more bodywork can potentially be saved following an impact using the classic Ginetta method of stitching it back together with cable ties like some sort of Frankenstein’s sports car. It also reduces the puncture risk and means debris does not cause such long caution periods or red flags to clear.

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Prior to BMW’s withdrawal from Formula E, its car used a flax composite for its cooling shaft, which is one of the parts manufacturers are allowed to form themselves. BComp supply the bodywork for Extreme E’s enormous electric SUV and Prodrive has put it to use on the Aston Martin Vantages that it runs.

Porsche used BComp’s fibre at the Nurburgring 24 Hours
The material has even made it into Formula 1 as part of McLaren’s drivers’ race seats. When the partnership was formed in 2020, McLaren’s driver line-up of Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris were well under the minimum weight, which meant using a slightly heavier composite in forming their seats did not put them at a disadvantage (with a normal seat more ballast would have been placed in the seat area anyway). Although Sainz’s seat never saw use before he left for Ferrari, Norris used his in the latter part of the 2021 season.

The flax alternative works in a context where there is no need for weight saving – or less need, with heavy GT cars and electric SUVs – but currently can’t stand up pound-for-pound to carbon fibre for F1 bodywork. Until that weight imbalance can be resolved, F1 isn’t likely to implement a communal parts bin like Formula E, where rivals would also have far too much opportunity to check out each others’ work. But encouraging teams to look for their own carbon fibre recycling options could at least give an opportunity to showcase the technologies available, as F1 continues to try get on the bleeding edge of sustainability.

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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20 comments on “How a sustainable alternative to carbon fibre could offer other benefits to motorsport”

  1. Todd (@braketurnaccelerate)
    5th March 2022, 8:01

    We are only going to see more and more carbon fiber. Aerospace has gone almost completely carbon, and they’ve been a precursor to automobiles and racing material tech since the early days. There is very little, except carbon nano-tubes, on the horizon for material replacements.

    The best thing we could do is find a way to recycle or decompose carbon fiber and epoxy. Alternative resins that are biodegradable might be a solution, but it will be hard to justify spending $135m on a car that will fall apart in 5 years time, even if they are getting replaced yearly due to regulation changes.

    1. About 7 years ago I was actively working on the subject of scaling CF composites from aero to automotive – at that time I was convinced we could achieve the cost competitiveness required to make the jump.

      However today I don’t think it will happen anymore in anything like the volume I once thought. The requirements to disassemble, sort and recycle/reuse are becoming more stringent, and fibre reinforced composites are basically a bit of a nightmare. I have my doubts it will be possible to meet future standards and maintain performance/economy.

    2. Or maybe there will be shift towards nanotubes.

  2. They could just send it all to Artif1ed (other upcyclers available)…

  3. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
    5th March 2022, 8:37

    But as the world seeks to reduce its reliance on and production of carbon

    No its the release of carbon into the atmosphere that we need to reduce.

    Carbon fibre is mostly polyacrylonitrile which is a thermo-plastic, but plastics only use a tiny amount of the oil we consume compared to the production of petroleum and similar. And of that only a tiny percentage is used for carbon fibre. The problem with plastic is how we recycle and dispose of it. That will make much more of a difference to the world right now.

    I’m a bit of an eco warrior but even I think carbon fibre use is not much of a issue. Now if F1 created a rule that the cars must be made from x% of recycled materials, that would be interesting.

    1. Agree, I think CFRP in F1 is a non-issue, but if we want trickle down technology then forcing f1 to develop & use sustainable composite materials would accelerate technology that could find its way to the wider market.

      1. F1 and any other materials non-restricted competitive sport will always gravitate to the best performing economically available material.
        If you are going to get F1 to use alternative materials, they will have to be written into the rules. There is no room for a material based performance sacrifice in F1 or in pretty much any other technically advanced sport, skiing, tennis rackets, golf clubs, bicycles, sailing … the list is vast.
        Good news for the eco-warriors, the FIA has already indicated that they are keen to require “sustainable” materials. And I always thought that hemp had only one common purpose.
        Which begs the question, why does Formula E use so much CFRP in what is a “Spec Series”? Of all the racing classes, this is one of the few prime candidates for lower spec, less expensive and eco-friendly materials. Could it be that just like the rest of us un-washed masses, they are addicted to the Bling Factor associated with Carbon Fiber everything?

  4. I have an opinion
    5th March 2022, 8:37

    We neither make nor destroy carbon; carbon ain’t the problem. It’s only when it’s taken from somewhere other than the atmosphere and then put into the atmosphere (esp. when chemically bonded with oxygen) that carbon becomes problematic. CARBON IS NOT BAD.

    1. Zeb Mccardle
      5th March 2022, 10:22

      Trees are full of carbon, maybe we should get rid of them too.

    2. Carbon fibre is a product of refining oil. Oil is a finite resource who’s refinement is detrimental to the atmosphere.

  5. The carbon fibre is not the problem as it is not toxic and will not harm the planet nor atmosphere as long as it is not burned, it is the plastic that that binds it that is the problem. They need to find a plastic that can be recycled from the carbon fibre composite scrap. Looking for another fibre will result in the same problem as carbon fibre.

  6. Great article! Thank you.

  7. Due to the weight disadvantages FoM management need to prescribe items to be made of flax fibre, such as front wings which contain Densamet ballast, making it heavier than it needs to be.

  8. RocketTankski
    5th March 2022, 11:06

    Plant-based cars are definitely the way to go. High-tech wattle and daub. Go Medieval on their Haas’es.

  9. I have covered Bcomp’s work quite a bit in my Sustainable Motorsport Round-Up. Interestingly, Japan’s Super Formula is working with them to “create bodywork crafted from “sustainable lightweight hemp” that, it is claimed, produces 75% less CO2 emissions than carbon fibre.”

  10. F1 isn’t likely to implement a communal parts bin like Formula E, where rivals would also have far too much opportunity to check out each others’ work.

    A communal parts bin doesn’t need to mean a literal skip that all teams have access to. If the FIA wanted to set up a carbon fibre recycling scheme then they could easily have someone appointed by the FIA to collect the rubbish from each team and store it in a secure area.

    The flax alternative works in a context where there is no need for weight saving … but currently can’t stand up pound-for-pound to carbon fibre for F1 bodywork.

    The implication being that you can’t use flax in F1 because it’s too heavy. But that’s also a problem that the FIA could solve, but banning the use of materials they consider problematic. As long as all teams have the same constraints, the weight doesn’t matter.

    1. If it is better for performance they will use it if not then they won’t. Sometimes sustainable means inferior like cardboard straws at McDonald’s, unfit for purpose so have to keep plastic straws at home for when kids have McDonalds. If this goes to far we will have cars made out of dried seaweed with engines running off of vegans farts.

  11. Change carbon fibre’s name. Boom! Problem solved.

  12. Eco delusion
    6th March 2022, 18:40

    Frankly if we are all so concerned about the future of the planet them simply stop racing. It not need for the survival of humans or the planet.

  13. Thermoplastic matrix composites are very strong/stiff, they use the same carbon fiber reinforcement as the F1 teams right now. The material can be ground after use, plastic added and made into an injection molding compound. Toray has already been working with cycling companies who have started to launch products made from the material. But there need to be more processors, equipment, variations of the material and processing experience to match current epoxy carbon fiber composites.

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