How advanced plastic composites are keeping the skies cleaner

There has been a push for innovation in the aviation industry. Since the early 1900's, aluminium has been the primary material used in aircraft construction, and accounts for anywhere between 65 and 75 percent of the total weight of a passenger aircraft. Recently, a new type of advanced plastic composites have made their way to the aviation scene.

The Boeing 787 makes greater use of composite materials in its airframe and primary structure than any previous Boeing commercial airplane. Under‑taking the design process without preconceived ideas enabled Boeing engineers to specify the optimum material for specific applications throughout the airframe.

The result is an airframe comprising nearly half carbon fibre reinforced plastic and other composites. This approach offers weight savings haul routes using up to 20% less fuel while pumping out fewer greenhouse gases, compared to more conventional aluminium designs.

Aluminium is sensitive to tension loads but handles compression very well. On the other hand, composites are not as efficient in dealing with compression loads but are excellent at handling tension. The expanded use of composites, especially in the highly tension-loaded environment of the fuselage, greatly reduces maintenance due to fatigue when compared with an aluminium structure.

The reduced weight and increased strength in aircraft components signals how commercial aviation targets have shifted from larger, farther, faster to cheaper, quieter, more efficient. Though the materials themselves are not new, the technology and the commercial demand for them have recently aligned. That makes advanced materials like carbon fibre essential to staking out a competitive edge in an international arena.

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