The aircraft end-of-life industry is getting increasingly efficient at repurposing materials that pile up during a typical teardown. Figures of 85-90% material recycled are common today, thanks in part to metals-processers than are getting more efficient at separating the valuable goods from the rest, making it smart business for tear-down specialists to send their scrap out.
The biggest challenges are composites—especially the cured ones that end up on finished aircraft. As models like the 787 and A350 become more prevalent, the composites-recycling challenge will become more daunting. High-volume parting out of these newest aircraft won’t get rolling for two decades or so, but industry isn’t waiting for the problem to morph into a full-blown crisis. Some companies aren’t waiting at all.
Boeing has made an internal commitment that any excess materials produced at its new 777X Composite Wing Center do not end up in a landfill. To support its goal, it is working with several partners, including ELG.
An experienced metals recycler, ELG understands both the technical challenges around extracting valuable materials from scrap and the need for commercial viability. While the former is important, the latter is crucial for Boeing and other OEMs that want to recycle their waste carbon fiber—both cured and uncured—without incurring costs.
"We want to make sure there is a commercially viable composite recycling industry,” Dale Smith, Boeing’s strategy manager, advanced materials & fabrication, Product Development, said at the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association annual meeting July 10. "We’ve got to get to the approach that we’ve seen for titanium and aluminum.”
ELG’s U.K. subsidiary, ELG Carbon Fibre, is adept at methods that remove and reclaim fibers from the resin that bonds them together, so they can be reused in other, non-aerospace applications. This, notes Smith, is a key part of the commercial-viability equation.
Among the potential ramifications: Boeing and other aircraft OEMs—which would see themselves in the odd position of being suppliers—gain outlets for the growing amount of composite waste generated by their production processes. It also should give end-of-life providers options for the inevitable day when scrapping a 787 is considered commonplace.