Thanks to a new recycling process, you may one day see the same aerospace-grade composites used in airplane construction in your motor car and laptop. On Monday, Boeing announced a new partnership with British-based ELG Carbon Fibre to recycle carbon composites left over from production at 11 Boeing manufacturing sites. The move will reduce solid waste by one million pounds (453,000 kg) per year.
The modern composites used in aircraft are something akin to wonder material. They're light, strong, can be worked into a remarkable variety of shapes, and are ideal for even large structures like airplane wings. The problem is that their use in aerospace manufacturing isn't 100 percent efficient. Even with the best practices, an airframe manufacturing line can produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of leftover composites every year.
What's frustrating about this is that these composites would be ideal in making automotive parts or electronics, but until a few years ago, they couldn't be recycled once the curing process where the binding resin hardens around the carbon fibers has been completed.
To overcome this hurdle, Boeing and ELG conducted a first-of-its-kind pilot project at the Boeing Composite Wing Center in Everett, Washington, where the excess material left over from making the wings for the 777x were specially treated using a proprietary method. By sending the composites through a special oven, the resin could be made to vaporize, leaving behind a clean material that could be reused.
Boeing says that the project recovered 380,000 lb (172,000 kg) of carbon fiber, which could now be sold to outside automotive and electronics firms. When the project is expanded to the 11 Boeing facilities, it's estimated that it will recover around three times as much carbon fiber and will help the company reduce its total solid wastes by up to 20 percent by 2025. In addition, the program could be expanded to include three more sites in Canada, China, and Malaysia.
"This collaboration takes Boeing's commitment to protect the environment to a whole new level. Recycling composites will eventually be as commonplace as recycling aluminum and titanium," says Kevin Bartelson, 777 Wing Operations leader.
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