Bénédicte Lunven took our Zoom call from her well-deserved vacation in France. She just recently finished her bachelor’s degree in Material Science at EPFL’s School of Engineering, where her work with the Swiss company Composite Recycling had garnered the attention of her supervisor Professor Véronique Michaud. The Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites ( LPAC ) normally specializes in the creation of novel composite materials, but for the ecologically bent Bénédicte, working on recycling these environmentally troublesome materials was a proposal she couldn’t turn down.
The production of composites is energy intensive and often relies on non-renewable resources. To compound the ecological impact, since composites are made of two or more distinct materials, they are difficult to recycle. Separating the fibers from the matrix can be complex, requiring specialized equipment, highly trained workers, and a lot of heat. "As of now, recycling rates for composites are very low, at the most around 2% of them are recycled. And we know that old boat hulls made of composites are polluting the oceans with microplastics," says Bénédicte. In light of these sustainability challenges, the company Composite Recycling is pioneering research to recycle glass-fiber composites in a sustainable fashion. Bénédicte’s bachelor project at LPAC, conducted at the company and under the supervision of Nour Halawani (Scientist at LPAC and R&D Project Manager for the Composite Recycling collaboration), focuses on ensuring that the mechanical properties of glass fibers are not significantly affected by the recycling process.
Finding a research project that will have a real impact"Nowadays, it’s impossible to produce composites without considering their environmental impact because we know that composites are highly polluting. When I saw the chance to work with Composite Recycling for my bachelor thesis, I jumped at the opportunity to combine my convictions with my research," says Bénédicte. She is also quick to point out that the recycling itself is energy neutral at the company, as the resins obtained in the process provide the fuel for generating the heat necessary in separating the materials. "This project truly makes sense from an environmental point of view," she adds.
By studying the mechanical properties of recycled composite materials, Bénédicte is helping the company to choose the best candidates for recycling. If the final recycled material is too mechanically compromised it won’t be viable on the market. Bénédicte fabricated samples of different recycled composites with different properties-focusing on woven and unwoven glass fibers and the percentage of recycled materials-and then performed mechanical tests. Using specially built machines in the lab, she bent and pulled at the recycled composites until they reached their breaking point.
A path to recycled composites is possibleAnd while her results are confidential (how exciting for a bachelor student!) she could tell me that the rate of recycling fibers plays a significant role in the final product. "I have made samples with 50% of recycled fibers and 100% of recycled fibers. And at the end, I found that the mechanical properties were more compromised with the fully recycled end product," she says. She enjoys working on projects that are directly linked to a concrete problem and is convinced that working in lab in academia isn’t for her. So she plans on finding a research role within a small, innovative company after her studies, and, in the immediate, she will return to Composite Recycling for an internship during her Masters.
The contradictions of research and climate change urgencyAt 21 years old, Bénédicte’s enthusiasm for material science shines through the screen as we talk. And her eyes lit up thoughtfully when I ask her about the potential for her work to make an impact on sustainability. "I’m actually quite divided on the subject, because while I feel called to do research, I’m also aware that the environmental issues need to be addressed urgently. The nature of research is to move slowly, to verify all the parameters over and over again. The research I’m doing might have an impact in five or maybe ten years. But we need political action, informed by the climate science, immediately," says Bénédicte.
Bénédicte’s clarity of purpose in her career is in sharp contrast to the profound doubts and challenging decisions that confront her generation of emerging scientists. She fears, avec raison, that the planet is on the brink of ecological collapse and is frustrated with the slow, incremental progress of research coupled with a lack of political will to make the necessary drastic changes to how we function as a society in time. This tension creates a unique quandary: possessing the talent and determination to excel in research that contributes to a sustainable future, yet wrestling with uncertainty about what that future might hold.