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Carbon Fiber Recycling: The Startup Turning Waste into Premium Goods

Carbon Fiber Recycling: Turning Waste into Premium Goods

One of the biggest head-scratchers in the sustainability game has been what to do with high-tech waste - especially carbon fiber composites used in everything from airplanes to sports equipment. It's lightweight, it's strong, but it does create a puzzle when it comes to recycling.

Enter Benjamin Saada, the brain behind Fairmat. This isn't just a story about recycling; it's about revolutionizing how we think about waste, turning a problem into a solution. Fairmat is slicing through the complexity of recycling and reusing carbon fiber, giving it a second life that's both eco-friendly and economically savvy.

 

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🕑 KEY MOMENTS

00:00 Intro
02:44 Fairmat's recycling technology
10:00 Challenges in sustainable materials industry
12:39 Communicating innovative technology
16:52 Advice for starting a cleantech company
19:19 Growth in sustainable materials industry
 
 

👤 INTERVIEW WITH BENJAMIN

Dunja Jovanovic: What inspired you to start Fairmat and the specific problem you were aiming to tackle?

 

Benjamin Saada: Thanks for the warm welcome. I'm thrilled to be here. My journey into Fairmat began about three years ago, marking it as my second entrepreneurial endeavor. Before Fairmat, I founded Explicit, a company focused on designing the world's lightest aircraft seats using carbon fiber composites. This venture was driven by my passion for enhancing aviation efficiency, specifically through fuel savings achieved by lighter aircraft seats. Over the first twelve years of my career, starting from the age of 23, my team and I dedicated ourselves to this mission, successfully integrating our technology into approximately 200 aircraft. Despite the success, a pressing issue lingered: the end-of-life scenario for these carbon fiber materials. The realization that these advanced materials were destined for landfills sparked my motivation to establish Fairmat. Our mission is to find an environmentally friendly solution for these materials, preventing them from becoming waste and offering a sustainable, high-performance alternative to traditional virgin materials.

 

DJ: How does Fairmat's technology function?

BS: Before diving into the specifics, it's crucial to contextualize recycling's origins and evolution. Recycling, as we know it, originated during World War II out of necessity due to material scarcity. Initially, the primary goal wasn't to save CO2 emissions but to find alternatives to scarce virgin materials. Today, at Fairmat, we redefine recycling with a focus on CO2 emission reduction. We've adopted mechanical recycling methods, which are currently the most effective in minimizing CO2 emissions. Our technology utilizes robots capable of slicing composite parts into chips with precision. These chips are then mixed using a specialized material science algorithm, ensuring uniform quality. One of the inherent challenges in recycling materials is that they tend to fail at their weakest points. Our innovative process ensures that these chips are distributed evenly, maintaining consistent quality across the board.

 

DJ: What types of products does Fairmat create from this recycled material?

BS: This is where Fairmat distinguishes itself from traditional recycling companies. We don't just stop at creating new materials; we push the boundaries to ensure these materials are utilized in a way that actively contributes to reducing CO2 emissions. Our technology has been successfully applied in various sectors, with sporting goods being a prime example. We've managed to not only recycle materials but also transform them into high-performance products that are both sustainable and economically viable.

 

DJ: With such innovative technology at hand, are you collaborating with any companies to incorporate your recycled material into their products?

BS: Yes, collaboration is at the heart of our mission. We supply materials and semi-finished products to a range of brands, particularly within the sporting goods industry. Our focus is on creating sustainable partnerships that align with our mission to reduce CO2 emissions. We currently have 15 global customers, including recent expansions into the US market. These collaborations are pivotal in demonstrating the practical applications of our recycled materials, showcasing their quality and sustainability.

 

DJ: Communication must be crucial, especially when dealing with such a pioneering technology. How do you approach the challenge of explaining what Fairmat does to potential collaborators and the wider public?

BS: Communicating the essence and impact of our work is indeed one of our biggest challenges. Deep-tech solutions like ours are complex, and simplifying this complexity for a broader audience without diluting the message is a fine balance. We emphasize the quality and sustainability of our products, supported by successful case studies and collaborations. For instance, our involvement in high-end sporting and electronic goods illustrates the premium quality achievable with recycled materials, challenging preconceived notions about recycling and its potential.

 

DJ: Looking towards the future, what emerging applications or technologies are you most excited about in the realm of recycling carbon fiber?

BS: The potential for recycled carbon fiber composites is immense, especially in replacing materials that have a significant environmental footprint. We're not just looking at aviation; our goal is to revolutionize materials used across various industries, including automotive, energy, and consumer goods. By replacing polluting materials with our recycled composites, we can significantly reduce the environmental impact of these sectors. The future of sustainable materials lies in innovative recycling technologies like ours, capable of transforming industries and contributing to a more sustainable planet.

 

DJ: And finally, Ben, where can people find out more about Fairmat and get involved with your community?

BS: We're actively seeking to expand our community and team, especially as we grow our presence in the US and Europe. Interested individuals can learn more about us and our mission at our website, Fairmat.tech, and connect with us on LinkedIn. We're on the lookout for talented individuals passionate about sustainability and innovation, aiming to make a real impact in the world.

📝 EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Hi, you are watching a brand new episode of the Green New Perspective Podcast. My name is Dunja, and I will be your guide on the journey to discovering innovative tech aimed at combating climate change. This episode is dedicated to one of the biggest head scratchers in the sustainability game, and that is what to do with high-tech waste, especially carbon fiber composites used in everything from airplanes to making sports equipment.

They're lightweight, they're durable, but they are a puzzle when we talk about recycling them. That's why we invited Benjamin Saada. He is the founder and CEO of Fairmat, a company that is recycling carbon fiber composites into a totally new material.

And this isn't going to be just a story about recycling. It's about revolutionizing how we think about waste, turning a problem into solution. So if you want to learn more on how we can actually reuse or recycle high-tech into making a totally new circular product, stick around and listen to what Ben has to say.

Hi Ben, welcome to the Green New Perspective podcast.

Hi, thank you for having me on the podcast.

So for the beginning, can you tell me and our audience what inspired you to start Fairmat, and what problem were you trying to solve?

Of course, my name is Ben. I started Fairmat three years ago. Actually, it's my second startup.

The first one, I launched it 14 years ago. It is called Explicit. Explicit, it is a lightweight aircraft seat company.

And for the first 12 years of my career, after the age of 23, just after graduation, I spent my time to develop the world's lightest aircraft seats in order to save fuel in aircraft. Because when you switch the seats, you have a lighter aircraft, and you save 2 to 3% of fuel. The company is a great success.

I mean, today, something like 200 aircraft are flying with this technology. But the seat was made of carbon-fiber composites. And the question was, what are we going to do with these materials after the end of life?

And here I discovered that actually this material is always going to be landfilled. And we are talking about millions of tons of materials that are going to be landfilled. It is the material of the aircraft, the material of the wind turbine.

And so I launched Fairmat to find an ecological solution to avoid this material to be landfilled, and also to provide the world to a new materials that has high performance and low price in order to find a sustainable alternative to many virgin materials.

And how does your technology actually works?

So, just before discussing about the technology, I mean, the concept of recycling has to be studied a little bit. Recycling was invented during World War II because there was a scarcity of materials to create ammunition. So, that's the beginning of the recycling industry.

So, it was to create an alternative to virgin materials because there was no access to virgin materials. So, initially, the recycling business was not here to save CO2. I mean, the concept of CO2 did not exist at that time.

So, when we started to recycle advanced materials, like carbon fiber composites, the first question is, what is recycling? And how to do recycling activities that is reducing the emission of CO2? And Fairmat could only use mechanical methods to recycle the materials, because today this is the only method that does not emit CO2, or very little, because it's just moving engines.

So, when you start to create the technology with this energy consumption problem in mind, then you ended up to use mechanical strength only. And so, how it works, it works with robots that actually are able to slice real-time composite parts, so like aircraft wings, wind turbine beams, industrial waste. So we are able to slice it at a thickness of 200 micron.

And so we create some chips of carbon fiber composite, and these chips, then we have developed a material science algorithm to mix it together in order to create a good quality of materials. And what is fun with materials and very difficult is that materials always break at a weak point. So if you mix materials, you can mix the best material in the world.

You add one bad material and then it breaks at this point. So we had to create an innovation about how to distribute the product, how to distribute the chips in order to have a constant quality. And that's super tough.

That's difficult. But it works very well. And this is Fairmat.

And what do you make from this new recycled material?

Your question is very important. Most of the recycling companies, they stop here. So they recycle and they create new materials or a new version of an initial materials.

At Fairmat, because we have to recycle hundreds of millions of tons of materials, we could not stop here. Because if I just provide customers with my chips, what they're going to do with it? How to make sure that they will use the chips for a better use?

How to make sure they will use the chips to actually reduce the CO2 emission of the product they are making? We have developed 50% of the technology is a manufacturing technology. It's another robot that are able to use the chips and then create a new semi-product or product.

What we do with the chips? We do that.

It's a rocket.

It's cool. This is made from aircraft and wind turbine. We do a lot of sporting goods.

It's a perfect material for sporting goods, for example.

Are you collaborating with some bigger companies? They don't have to be big. Some companies that are manufacturing goods, so they want to use your material to create their products or whatever.

Of course. At the end, we are a producer of materials and a supplier of semi-products or manufacturing technologies that they can use in their own factory. We work with many brands in sporting goods.

Today, we have 15 customers worldwide. We just recently opened the US and we have 5 customers in the US and 10 other customers are mainly in Europe. We work with paddle rackets, with skis, insole shoes.

Carbon fiber is doing really great in running shoes, actually. We work on that. We also work in the electronics goods industry.

You want to see?

This is my only surprise for this podcast. Here you can see it's a reinforcement that we do for... The company can then put electronics components into it.

This one is for doing weight scales, smart weight scales of a European company called WeSings. It's pretty cool.

Do you feel like the interest in recycled or new materials are growing with companies like you mentioned, or are they still buying some limited quantities of those materials so they can basically PR themselves as doing something sustainable and not actually including the sustainability practices within the bigger production?

As a startup company, first, there is no interest for us to work on what you call greenwashing, actually.

It doesn't have to be greenwashing, but I had in my previous podcast episode, I had a couple of guests who were making recycled materials. I can mention one company there called Renusel. It's a Swedish company that recycles cotton and Bisco's into a new product, new material that is called Circulos.

And they were collaborating with some of the bigger fashion brands, but they were buying smaller quantities. And they were not complaining. They were really grateful for those kind of collaboration, but they still had the, let's say, difficulties to survive on the market because they're still not buying enough for them to grow as a company and to produce more material, which is well...

So I think it's a very good question. So today I can only talk about my company. So for Fairmat, we started to sell our product last year and we have sold the equivalent of 300 tons of materials.

So it's a big figure. I mean, we were very happy with that. Of course, we want to grow much more.

That raises a very important question. As a repeat founder of a deep tech startup, deep tech business requires high volume. It requires mass application.

Otherwise, there's no way your business model will repay the investment of the factory and so on. And you can see it. The most known deep tech startup is Tesla.

I mean, it's not because Tesla is aiming at being bigger than Ford or Volkswagen or big groups. And it is the same for deep tech startup. I mean, you can only exist if you aim at being big.

And the advantages of recycling carbon fiber composites is the 200 million tons of materials to recycle. I mean, the feedstock is big enough to be able to invest into innovation and disruptive business model.

And where did you see some challenges while developing the company?

There's a lot of challenges. We want to... So today, most of the manufacturing is made in Asia.

So even if we recycle in Europe, for example, or soon it will be recycled in the US, we are shipping the product in Asia. What we want to provide our customers is with a multi-local business that allows them to have a low CO2 footprint everywhere in the world. So for example, a big challenge is Fairmat.

To be big has to be in Europe, in the US and in Asia. I mean, it's very, very difficult for a startup to establish already one factory is a big challenge, but here we have to establish one factory and present everywhere worldwide. Otherwise, the environmental impact will be reduced.

And to go back to your initial question, my vision is that it's only like startup with a real positive and strong impact on the environment that will survive the next 10 years. So we must provide this strong positive impact. So we must to be present in Asia, in US and in Europe.

And that's pretty big challenge. No one wants that to be in the backyard. That's not possible.

Yeah, I have to say the most frequent thing that I hear from guests here on the podcast is that collaboration is one of the most important things when we're talking about clean tech space. So yeah, that is something that everyone is basically, you know, just repeating.

And large corporations are really ready to collaborate to solve that issue. That's another reality. Again, no one wants that in this backyard.

So everyone is actively looking for solutions.

What I wanted to ask is this podcast is sponsored by a marketing agency. And the other thing that I also heard here on the podcast that is frequently mentioned is how clean tech companies are actually communicating their efforts and what they're doing, the new technologies, how they're placing themselves in the market. So what challenges did you have there with Fairmat?

Because you're doing something that is truly innovative. Do you feel like people understand what you're doing, what your collaborators or companies that you're working with had, did they have any challenges, you know, when you approached them with your technology?

We're facing so many challenges in that field. First, what we do is complicated. So, I mean, it's a big challenge for DeepTech Startup.

We are just saying we do recycling, carbon fiber companies is not true because we do the manufacturing, but we create a new material, so we are closing a loop, but it's a complicated loop. So, it's complicated. So, to achieve communication on a complicated business is not easy.

The second thing is, at least in Europe, but I think it's the same in the US. When you say you are doing recycling, people think it is cheap, you know, it's a low quality or low cost product. Of course, Fairmat is providing an extremely good price to performance ratio, but when we do sporting goods, usually we ended up in the best sporting goods category.

So when we do ski, we do ski with the best brand in the world. When we do paddle racket, we do the best paddle racket in the world. Pickleball, all these sports.

For the first time, Fairmat is providing recycled materials that are super high-end. And it's one of our pillars to improve consumer goods in general. And this is a big challenge to communicate on that.

How to explain that the new top quality is coming from the recycling industry. That's a big challenge to explain to people.

Yeah, that's true.

That's true.

When people hear recycled, they think about something that has less of a worth than virgin materials. So yeah, I get you. But did you find any strategies to be successful there?

I think the best strategy is to let our customers talk for us. If you look at the WeSinks project, WeSinks is one of the best companies in Europe for health tech. They do a smart scale.

They can measure your heart beating and many other very important things. Our product ended up in the most expensive weight scales. The product that they sell the most in the US and so on.

So I think as Fairmat CEO, I cannot do more for that. I can just sell my products and equip my customers on their best line of equipment. And this is what is happening in the sporting goods, in the electronics goods.

We really ended up all the time in high-end products. I think that speaks for itself.

What emerging applications or technologies are you most excited about for recycling carbon fiber?

For Fairmat recycled carbon fiber composites, aim at replacing other advanced materials, not necessarily the virgin carbon fiber. Do you want to fly in a recycled aircraft? An aircraft is not here to be recycled, it's here to be efficient, safe.

And with the aircraft, we can do plenty of other goods that would be useful for our consumer. So we aim at replacing very polluting aluminum grades, very polluting stainless steel, some glass fiber. And we see our future in the civil business, energy business, in some wind turbine components, automotive business, on the battery casings, skid plate, all this kind of part that has a huge impact on the consumption of the car.

And of course, we'll keep growing in the field of pouring goods because we're doing so good already and we want to expand.

Did you have it in mind to work in sporting goods or did that just happen?

It happens.

It happens.

I mean, like Fairmat, it happens to me. I've just after graduation, I created an aircraft city players with two other friends. We aim at saving CO2.

14 years later, I have two kids. So now I aim at providing them a better planet for them to grow in a good environment. And we ended up with Fairmat Advanced Recycling Technology.

Well, that's a good motive to have.

The best.

Yeah.

What advice would you give to other people who want to start a cleantech company?

Like that, I have three three three advice. So first, I mean, you need to be able to work with large companies. So and that's really a specific job.

Large companies is a complicated world with huge opportunities. But also, if you if you take the wrong the wrong path, you can lose years of work and be very disappointed or frustrated. So with large companies is to make sure that your business model is what they want.

And if there is no fit, you need to drop fast, very fast. I mean, it's OK. That's life.

There is plenty of companies in the world. If you cannot work with this one, you will find to pass to work with another one. But be very clear about your business model, how you want to make money, how you want to help them and be sure that what you are doing is sustainable.

So this is what we do for the sporting goods. I mean, we need to avoid to work with brand or company that will make maybe a use, but not for long term and so on. So do not hesitate to be very focused on the right partners.

The second thing is, we discussed it already, the aiming at big. If there is factories involved in your technology, you need to look for a market in hundreds of million euro minimum. My previous company Explicit, the actual market was between 200 and 500 million euro per year.

This is too small. Because even if you do 10%, it's 20 million, 50 million. It's too small for a big factory and so on.

So you need to aim at market in billions per year. So you need to be ready to tackle this kind of challenges, but this is the only way to provide a successful business model for your investors. So that's my two big advice.

And the third advice, of course, is you're probably a genius in your field. You're probably super motivated, but you won't solve everything. You won't solve every problem of your customers.

So make sure you work on the actual problem your technology is designed to solve. Because people, as soon as they understand you're smart, they will ask you, like, okay, can you do that? And a person that and reduce that and you have to stay focused, of course.

So that's my advice. Very difficult to apply when you are inside the company.

Well, thank you. Great advice. I wanted to ask you, and where do you see the most potential for growth and impact in the sustainable materials overall, not just the one that you're making?

So if you look at what consume today, in terms of weight, the three industries that are consuming most of the materials today is building industry, automotive industry and electronics industry. So, I mean, I don't know the future, but what I can say is, if we want to reduce CO2 emission or we want to improve the impact at scale for the health, these three industries, they have to change everything they do. That's not, I mean, otherwise, it's not going to happen.

You can look at everything you want. If the building industry is automotive industry, electronics industry is not changing the way they are manufacturing today, the impact at earth level will be nothing. So at least because I am a positive and I think that we will reach some targets and we will improve the situation, I can say that I think there is a revolution to come in these industries.

Let's stay positive. Like some of our guests here said, cautiously optimistic.

I guess that's the good phrase to use here.

Let's be completely optimistic.

It's okay.

So where can people find you, your company, on your social media? Give us the links on your website. And if you have some clean tech, climate tech, nature tech, biotech, sustainable materials communities that you would like to share for people who are in the industry or for people who would like to discover the industry, please do share for us.

We will go into the link all of this in the description of the episode.

The community, I'm happy to share. First, if people want to join us, we are recruiting a lot. We have an office in Paris, in France, but right now we are also recruiting in Utah, in Salt Lake City, for our new plant.

So we're looking for a talent choose, project manager, workers, industrial engineers, spawning group experts to help us to build our presence in the US and in Salt Lake City, in Utah. Our website is www.fairmat.tech, and we have a LinkedIn community just to join Fairmat on LinkedIn, and you can join our community. Thank you, Ben.

This has been an informative conversation on what you're producing. I wish you all the best with the US launch.

Thank you. Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure to be with you today.

You were watching Green New Perspective Podcast, and now is the perfect time for me to introduce you to our wonderful sponsors, the New Perspective, a Boston-based marketing agency working with clean tech clients only. And if you want to learn how they're helping clean tech companies grow, please check out the info in the description of this episode. And if you want to help us grow, consider liking, sharing, subscribing to our channel on your favorite streaming platform.

It really means the world to us. Thank you for being with me, and see you next time. Bye.

 

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Host: Dunja Jovanovic 
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