This blog is part of a series of interviews on our Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2014.

Nanostructured carbon interfaces are highlighted on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies’ list as a promising new technology. What are they?
Carbon fibres are nothing new. We have these kinds of composite materials everywhere – in airplanes and military hardware. For example, the Airbus A350 XWB is built of more than 50% carbon-fibre reinforced polymer. The thing that is really exciting about this technology is two-fold.

First, the fibre is becoming cheaper and we are learning how to better integrate the carbon fibres in a resin, which will produce the polymer that creates the matrix to be able to shape anything we want. That’s critically important because it allows you to create a textile, a fabric, from your fibres. That fabric is embedded into a resin that’s a liquid, which is very easy to mould into any kind of shape. From the manufacturing point of view, this is very easy. The main problem was cost, until quite recently, but that’s going down.

The second main breakthrough that we are highlighting in this year’s list is the possibility of creating anchoring sites for the polymer on the surface of the carbon fibre. By engineering such cleavable “release points” into the material, it is easier to decouple the polymer and the fibre for recycling. The difficulty of recycling these materials was one of the main obstacles to this technology, so this is a significant breakthrough.

What kind of uses can this technology be put towards?
Transportation is the main hope for two reasons: lighter cars, which will save energy; and materials with better mechanical properties, which will improve safety. These materials are not stronger because they are harder, but because they can absorb the impact. That is exactly the kind of protection you that want to get when you are driving. You want more flexible material that can absorb the impact, as in a bullet-proof vest.

Today’s cars have lots of void spaces to make them light, but that is not very good for safety. These carbon fibre-containing polymers can be incorporated into all the void spaces within the car for added protection. In the future, they can fully replace parts the car’s bodywork, as it already happens in high-end automobile racing cars, making them lighter (and therefore more fuel-efficient) and equipped to absorb impacts.

What is the function of the carbon fibres in these new composite materials?
This idea is to prevent cracks forming and spreading. Imagine you have a piece of plastic. You can crack it quite easily. But if you have a network of fibres inside it, it’s going to be very difficult to break because that network of fibres is creating a structure within the plastic, which will make it almost impossible to break that piece. That’s the idea behind shields, for example, and the reason carbon fibre-reinforced polymers are already used in high-end sports equipment like bicycle frames, racquets and rowing shells.

What stage of development is this technology at the moment? How soon is it going to come to market?
This is a complicated question because carbon fibre-reinforced polymer technology is already at commercial scale, but at a very high cost. We decided to highlight the nanostructuring of the carbon fibres as one of our top 10 emerging technologies because the incorporation of cleavable “release points” on the carbon surface can help to separate the carbon from the polymer phase, making its recycling possible and significantly reducing its overall cost.

For example, when your car is at the end of its life, you take it back to the producer. There, the car is dissembled into different parts and many of them are reused. If carbon fibre-reinforced polymers could be also reused, this could reduce its cost and create a new industry to recycle these types of cars. It potentially could be a very profitable business and could help reduce the cost of cars, while increasing their safety and fuel efficiency. There are some pilot scale experiments, but it’s still not at commercial scale. The US Department of Energy says that reducing a car’s weight by only 10% can improve fuel efficiency by 6-8%, which is also a major incentive in a time of increasing fuel prices. Also, many people will be ready to pay extra for a safer car.

What kind of timescale are we talking about before the cost comes down to a reasonable level?
Making this kind of prediction is always difficult, but I would say that the idea of the anchoring sites is ready to be deployed in five to seven years. The chemistry behind this technology has been well known for a long time. I don’t see any major technical main obstacles there. The main challenge is to create the recycling industry that will allow for competitive prices and large-scale production.

Is there an element of a chicken and egg problem here, in that you need the recycling industry around it to make it viable, but you need these products coming on to the market in sufficient volume for the recycling industry to develop?
That has been the problem until now. The technology that we highlight this year makes recycling easier and should catalyse the formulation of this recycling industry that has not been possible before because it has been really difficult to separate the carbon from the plastic. Nowadays, when the very expensive car, aircraft or sport equipment containing carbon-based composites is dismantled, the pieces are not recycled. They are not recovered because there is not enough volume and also because we don’t have the right technology. Engineered cleavable release points on the carbon should make recycling easier and could create the business opportunity to fill that gap.

Is it an opportunity that the major car manufacturers are ready to take up?
What they’re looking for is for niche market opportunities like the electric car, which is still expensive but some people are willing to pay for it. Then there are sport cars. There are different niche opportunities for people that want really fast, light, energy-saving kinds of cars. The car industry is extremely good at marketing different types of car for different types of clients. Carbon-based composites allow for really light, high-speed cars with wonderful design. Because the carbon fibres are embedded in a mouldable resin that is later hardened, you can shape this kind of composite as you wish, allowing for complex and really unusual designs. Regarding fuel efficiency, most attention has been paid to the engine, producing significant improvement. Using lighter materials for car making opens new opportunities.

One of the problems with electric cars so far has been the battery not being able to store enough energy to get sufficient range for the car. Using carbon-based composites should help with this because it would produce a lighter car and so the battery would need to store less energy, right?
Absolutely. For environmentally conscious people, getting lighter cars makes sense. Lighter vehicles not only require less energy, but also allow for reducing the overall weight of the car, which is especially important when using multiple rather heavy batteries. In the race for smaller, lighter batteries, reducing the overall weight of the vehicle by using carbon-based composites could make a real difference.

Are there any other industry areas where this kind of technology will be beneficial that perhaps haven’t been able to adopt it before?
Aviation and military are very important markets for carbon-based composites because of the increasing need for materials with excellent strength/weight ratio. Their appetite for this kind of technology is only going to grow.

Are we talking about a couple of decades before this technology becomes mainstream?
Yes, but I see a shorter time scale for niche applications. Sports car people, people who would be willing to pay a lot of money for the best kind of cars, could be the champions we need to take this technology to the next level. They’re always looking for the newest materials, the newest edge, the newest technology. Or it could be for people concerned for the environment and to enable electric cars to flourish. It could be a combination. I don’t think it’s going to mainstream anytime soon. The important thing is that now we have the technology that makes carbon-composite recycling possible.

Javier Garcia-Martinez is Founder and Director of Rive Technology and a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies.