Recaro Pioneers Seating Shells Made with CF Recyclate

Recycled carbon fiber adds seat strength and reduces mass in the race-focused shell.

Recaro’s new Pole Position RCF seat shell is FIA-approved. (Recaro Automotive – seat shell; Steve Fecht-Chevrolet – race cars)

The green flag is about to drop on an auto-racing first: a seat shell infused with recycled carbon fiber. “While motorsports is our first usage for the FIA-certified seat shells, it doesn’t mean it will be our last,” Nicole McElroy, global VP of product & brand at Recaro Automotive, said in a recent SAE Media interview.

Carbon Conversions re-Evo MCF non-woven material is used in the Recaro seat shell. (Carbon Conversions)

With production starting in first-half 2023, Recaro’s recycled carbon fiber-infused seat shells will debut at various racetracks as well as drifting competitions. For racers, the seat shell provides structural load and energy-absorbing strength in a lightweight construction. The new product, which will replace Recaro’s portfolio of glass-fiber seat shells, meets driver needs while being 3.08 lb (1.4 kg) lighter in weight than a glass-fiber shell.

The carbon fiber recyclate is supplied by Carbon Conversions Inc., a South Carolina-based company that creates advanced materials from waste-stream parts. Each Recaro shell uses (on average) 10-11% of the dry fiber as a replacement for chopped glass fiber strands. In the future, the percentage of recycled material could increase. “We want to see how far we can go with this,” McElroy said.

Shell construction

C-Ply U300 CV-10 features unidirectional carbon tows stitched to a lightweight carbon veil, which helps resin flow during infusion. (Chomorat)

In addition to the recycled carbon fiber content, the shell construction uses Chomarat’s trademarked C-Ply multi-axial NCF (non-crimp fabric) to orient carbon fibers in the needed directions without the weight and cost typically associated with woven fabric. “We can incorporate up to four angles in a single NFC material to optimize performance and simplify part lay-up,” noted John Leatham, director of sales and marketing for Chomarat North America, a company specializing in composite materials and technical textiles.

Other materials used in the shell construction include braided woven carbon, woven glass (replacing discontinuous glass fiber strips) and vinyl ester epoxy resin instead of polyester resin. “The change in resin adds strength to the material,” McElroy said.

The U.S. is Recaro’s development and production epicenter for the recycled carbon fiber-infused shell. “Part of sustainability is the footprint. For the seat shells currently used in motorsports, all of the product is imported, primarily from Eastern Europe with some shells coming from China, Korea and Vietnam,” McElroy said. Recaro’s new seat shells will be shipped to distribution sites in the Americas.

Compared to global carbon-fiber production — estimated at 120,000 to 150,000 tons in 2021 — carbon-fiber recovery is accelerating. Nearly three million pounds were reclaimed between 2021 and 2022 by Carbon Conversions. Material recycled by the company has been used for various purposes by multiple industries, including consumer electronics, recreational, general industrial, aerospace and automotive.

Carbon Conversions manufactures a wide variety of re-Evo non-woven products using recycled carbon fiber only as well as commingled with thermoplastic fibers. (Carbon Conversions)

“Most notably, our re-Evo MCF recycled carbon fiber non-woven is a qualified material in the second-generation Acura NSX floorboards,” said Keith Graham, VP of business development. He said that while adoption rates of recycled carbon fiber are slow, companies are “becoming more confident in demonstrating their ability to use the material effectively just like with other advanced composites materials.”

Carbon Conversions is currently qualifying materials for mass transportation applications that are slated to begin production in 2024 and 2025.