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Composite materials reduce emissions in the aerospace industry

Aviation accounts for about five per cent of Sweden's total carbon dioxide emissions. As air travel increases, the need for measures to reduce the climate impact of aviation is becoming increasingly important. Together with several actors in the aerospace industry, RISE is conducting research on new lightweight materials for a more sustainable aerospace industry. 

The aerospace industry has long endeavoured to make aircraft designs lighter. With lighter aircraft, it is possible to reduce fuel consumption and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and therefore the impact on the environment. RISE is conducting, along with several of the largest actors in the aerospace industry, research on composite materials for more sustainable aviation.

Light, rigid and strong materials

"In summary, we can say that we are researching and developing lightweight, rigid and strong carbon fibre composites for use in aircraft designs. Especially for the body of the aircraft, the wings, and the engines", explains Patrik Fernberg, head of research at RISE.

In addition to being light, the surfaces of wings need to be so smooth that they create the smallest possible air resistance, something that requires extreme shape tolerance. RISE has also developed high temperature composites that withstand temperatures of up to 400 degrees and can replace epoxy-grade composites that have an upper limit of between 150 and 200 degrees. 

"The higher the temperature of the composites, the further into the aircraft engines they can be used, therefore replacing more metal material that weighs more", says Patrik Fernberg.

Holistic take on new materials

RISE is working with the development of new lightweight materials, manufacturing techniques and design methods. 

"We take a holistic approach and conduct research to develop and improve carbon fibre composites that are already used in the aerospace industry, as well as conducting research on completely new material solutions such as the use of nano composites based on carbon nanotubes or graphene, optical fibres or other sensors embedded in composite structures to for example, monitor the condition of the material. In our various research projects we work closely with, among others, GKN Aerospace", says Patrik Fernberg.

GKN Aerospace manufactures aerospace and rocket engine components and works with all the major engine manufacturers in the world. GKN Aerospace's components can be found in more than 90 of all the new large civil aircraft.

Composites contribute to fossil-free strategy 

"Polymer composite materials are light and strong and have begun to be used in large parts of the aircraft structure and in cooler components of the engine. We are working to find geometrically complex components that can withstand higher heat and which may replace metallic materials in the engine. In this way we could reduce the weight by up to 30 per cent. We believe that in time it will be possible to produce about 30 per cent of the engine's components from composite materials, so far we have got about halfway", says Anders Sjunnesson at GKN Aerospace.

One reason why the collaboration between RISE and GKN Aerospace works so well is that we work together on several different levels. Both in project form and at management level where we have a long time horizon. 

The Swedish aviation strategy, developed by the Government, says that aviation shall contribute to the goal of Sweden becoming one of the world's first fossil-free welfare states. This requires both technological and business innovation. Research into new lightweight materials at RISE creates the conditions for it to become a reality. 

Published: 2019-04-18