Excessive plastic consumption is one of the greatest environmental problems of our times and is, for the present at least, receiving more attention than ever before.
But while the single-use, throwaway culture associated with many plastic items is rightly criticized, plastics' use in aircraft--through carbon-fiber--is actually an environmental benefit as it allow lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft.
Nonetheless, in about 20 years’ time the first wave of retirements of aircraft built mostly from carbon-fiber will hit, at which point aircraft recycling centers will need to have adapted their current tooling, which is geared towards aluminum airframes.
The genesis of such adaption may be found in a recent deal between Boeing and ELG Carbon Fibre to recycle excess aerospace-grade composite material.
Under the partnership, which builds on a pilot project between the two parties, Boeing expects to recycle “a majority” of the excess carbon fiber from 11 manufacturing sites. The material will then be suitable for the electronic accessories and automotive markets.
"Recycling cured carbon fiber was not possible just a few years ago," says Tia Tolle, Boeing materials & fabrication director, referring to technical barriers to repurposing material that had already been cured.
ELG’s solution is to put the excess materials through treatment in a furnace, which vaporizes the resin that holds the carbon-fiber layers together and leaves behind clean material. Over the course of 18 months, the companies saved 1.5 million lbs. (680,000kg) of carbon fiber, which was cleaned and sold to companies in the electronics and ground transportation industries.
“Recycling composites will eventually be as commonplace as recycling aluminum and titanium," says Kevin Bartelson, Boeing's 777 wing operations leader.