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New composite material for airplanes

New composite material for airplanes

Articles

Solvay and Boeing are making composite aircraft parts more accessible than ever
Alongside confronting near term challenges, the aerospace industry will remain focused on addressing long-term opportunities such as ensuring efficient aircraft production. With that in mind, a new material developed by Solvay enables aerospace manufacturers to fabricate composite parts for aircraft much faster & cheaper than previously possible. This technological advancement means that metal is no longer the only cost effective production option for small to medium parts. Beyond dollars and cents, that’s good news for the aerospace industry’s carbon footprint too.

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Airplanes need to get lighter. The aerospace industry is in search of any smart solution that can help it construct aircraft that consume less fuel and therefore emit less CO2 in order to reduce its direct contribution to air transport’s carbon footprint – currently 2% of global emissions. The most readily accessible of those solutions is to make planes out of composite materials instead of metal, a direction manufacturers have been following for years, progressively replacing more and more metal parts with carbon fiber. In fact, certain commercial aircraft flying today nearly reach a proportion of 50% of composites.

But things are moving slowly. Technical considerations that boil down to time and money are (as always) to blame here: composite materials come with a certain price, and making parts with them is a slow process. Therefore, there is no other way to accelerate the path towards lighter, less polluting aircraft than to come up with new generations of composites that are fast and easy to work with.

The quickest composite materials around
That’s exactly what Solvay and Boeing had in mind as they put their heads together to create a new generation of composites, CYCOM® EP2750, officially launched commercially earlier this year.

So what’s so special about it? The main thing is the curing time it allows. Making a part with carbon fiber pre-impregnated with resin traditionally takes hours because of the required autoclave curing time. In layman’s terms: you have to cook it in the oven for a long time. CYCOM® EP2750 reduces this time so significantly that manufacturing rates can be multiplied by a factor of 10 to 20.

This is also made possible by the product’s compatibility with the fastest processing technologies currently available for making composite parts: double diaphragm forming (DDF) and spring frame press fabrication. Robots can handle these parts easily, which, combined with the resin’s fast-curing properties, reduces cycle time from 8.5 hours to 30 minutes. And that’s only the beginning of the virtuous cycle: as parts are made faster, asset utilization is lower and throughput is higher; also, hot compression molding is more cost effective than autoclave manufacture, especially for smaller parts. Put together, these factors decisively reduce the overall cost per part, thereby making composites competitive with the traditionally employed machined aluminum. Mind you, this is only valid for small to medium parts, but in conformity with aerospace standards for performance and quality, which means they can be used for primary as well as secondary structure, and complex geometries aren’t a problem either.

In addition to the commercial jets we’re familiar with, CYCOM® EP2750 targets all other areas of the aerospace industry requiring high-rate manufacturing of high numbers of parts, namely military aircraft, autonomous air vehicles such as drones – a rapidly expanding market – as well as the emerging field of urban air-taxis; for these vertical lift vehicles, high performance lightweight composites are definitely of interest.

In all these markets, current composite technologies are just too slow to keep up with rising manufacturing rates. This new material provides not only the necessary rapid manufacturing, but also the cost efficiency they seek in order to be competitive.

A partnership for lightweighting
The development of CYCOM® EP2750 is the result of a strong partnership between Solvay and Boeing. The two companies started working together over three years ago in order to better understand the aerospace industry’s needs in terms of high-rate, cost effective part manufacturing and the associated technical challenges, and to develop a material along with process solutions to meet these challenges, as well as demonstrate the obtained capabilities by manufacturing various representative parts. The result must have been quite convincing, as CYCOM® EP2750 is one of three finalists for the JEC World Innovation Awards in the Aerospace category.

So far, over 300 parts with five different designs have been made in a simulated production environment, thus demonstrating the short cycle times and high performance can effectively be attained. The two companies split the work: Boeing set the expectation for production rates (takt time, which is the average time between the start of production of one unit and the start of production of the next unit), material performance and provided part designs based on typical aerospace small parts, while Solvay developed the tooling requirements, prepreg material and manufacturing processes.

Cutting the footprint in half
Now that this innovation is about to make composite parts cost competitive with metal for aircraft parts, manufacturers are set to convert more and more parts from metal to composites, passing the 50% tipping point and thus further reducing emissions caused by airplanes – oh, and lighter planes also mean more comfortable traveling for passengers: they don’t need to fly as high, so air pressurization in the cabin is lower while humidity levels are higher, which reduces jetlag. Plus, the design freedom enabled by composites means more efforts can be placed in improving passenger comfort.

The aerospace industry estimates that currently, the use of composites results in fuel savings of 10 to 15%, with comparable values in terms of CO2 emissions reduction, as every kilogram of fuel saved translates into 3.15kg less CO2 in the atmosphere. This is an industry that continues to grow steadily, and the only way it can succeed in reaching its target of halving emissions by 2050 is to continue making planes lighter and lighter. Fortunately, Solvay is onboard to help do just that!

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