Carbon fibre planes: Lighter and stronger by design

An X-ray view of the Airbus 2050 concept airliner Could this be the kind of airliner we're flying in, by 2050?

When it comes to airliners, weight is money. The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it takes to drive it through the air. The more fuel it takes, the more it costs.

The drive to increase fuel efficiency and improve the aerodynamic performance of new aircraft is leading designers to move away from using aluminium in airframes.

Instead today's latest planes like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and Airbus's A350 rely on lightweight carbon fibre composites - woven mats of carbon which are embedded in plastic.

The key to a composite material like carbon fibre is that it is incredibly strong for its weight.

"You have carbon fibres mixed into a matrix," says Manchester University lecturer Aravind Vijayaraghavan.

"Normally the matrix is a type of plastic, which is not very strong, but if you mix in carbon fibre then it takes on the strength of carbon fibre and becomes strong."

In the UK, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has been working with Britain's National Composites Centre into research and modelling of new industrial designs and materials.

'Mould all the parts together'
Airbus A350XWB Carbon fibre means wing tips can be near vertical, improving efficiency

One development of this research has been the trailing edges of the wing of Airbus's latest plane, the A350.

Start Quote

If we can take a kilogram of weight out - that's got a huge saving over the life of an aircraft”

End Quote Colin Sirett Head of research, Airbus UK

This is the part that extends back and down from the wing as a plane comes into land.

"This is a component that takes the full load of those forces as you're travelling through the air at about 250mph - and you can lift it yourself," says Colin Sirett, head of research for Airbus in the UK.

"We could get a sledgehammer and take it to this panel and the sledgehammer would actually bounce off," he told BBC World Service's Business Daily programme.

Composites mean that manufacturers can get a good surface finish on components to optimise their aerodynamic performance.

Using these kinds of materials is also opening up other potential savings. An A380 super-jumbo, for instance, has about six million parts - but in future this could be cut considerably.

"We will mould all the parts together at the same time, so our perception of what a single part is will change," says Mr Sirett.

With fewer components, manufacturing time also will shorten, saving money.

First Boeing 787 Dreamliner rolled out at Boeing's North Charleston factory, South Carolina, April 2012 So far 1,030 Boeing 787 Dreamliners have already been ordered

Crucially for aircraft manufacturers, carbon fibre components are lighter than similar parts made of aluminium.

"If we can take a kilogramme of weight out, that's got a huge saving over the life of an aircraft," says Mr Sirett.

Each kilogramme cut means a saving of roughly $1m (£603,000) in costs over the lifetime of an aircraft, he calculates - and the use of such composites can reduce the weight of an aircraft by up to 20%.

Growing use of composites

Elementary Business

elements symbols

BBC World Service's Business Daily goes back to basics and examines key chemical elements - and asks what they mean for the global economy.

Of course, since the mid-1970s civil airliners have had some carbon fibre in their airframes.

Currently, Boeing's latest plane, the 787 Dreamliner uses composites for half of its airframe including the fuselage and wing, while Airbus's A350 XWB has both its fuselage and wings made of carbon fibre.

While the use of carbon fibre has allowed the creation of sweeping wing tips, which can cut fuel consumption by up to 5%, both aircraft are still fairly conventionally shaped.

Yet, the great advantage of using carbon fibre as opposed to traditional metal is that it gives designers much more freedom when trying to juggle the conflicting demands of aerodynamic efficiency, fuel savings and reducing engine noise.

So, the airliners of the future are likely to be radically different.

Such shapes could include blended wing designs, where the fuselage and wings merge into each other - like some military aircraft today.

Future designs
Airbus concept plane Carbon fibre airframes mean that aircraft can be very different in shape

Such a design could significantly improve a plane's lift-to-drag ratio - making it much more aerodynamically efficient, and also reduce its overall weight.

Airbus recently unveiled its own proposals for an airliner of the future - and it too moves away from the traditional narrow tube-like fuselage.

Instead, its 2050 concept plane has a fatter fuselage, which is curved and shaped to improve airflow and to provide more internal space.

Its wings are longer and slimmer to reduce drag and save on fuel.

The tail section is U-shaped, which acts as a shield, cutting down on engine noise.

The engines themselves will have become more reliable, so ground crew will need to access them less frequently for maintenance.

This means they can be partially embedded in the airframe to improve fuel consumption.

Futuristic concepts like this may never quite get off the drawing board, but elements of it are certain to be incorporated in all future aircraft designs, in large part due to the materials revolution which is rapidly changing all aspects of manufacturing.

Listen to Business Daily on how carbon is being fashioned into new forms that could reshape our world.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    CAPITA EARNINGS 07:10:

    Capita says "underlying" profit before tax for the first six months of the year rose 16% to £238m. However, if you factor in things like acquisition costs and reductions in the value of its assets, it's a drop in profit to £152.3m from £157.5m. Still, dividend is up 10.3% to 9.6 p.

     
  2.  
    RUSSIAN SANCTIONS 06:51: BBC Radio 4
    Vladimir Putin

    More from Mr Grodzki on Russian sanctions: He says the Russian economy is very resilient to sanctions and Russia is virtually self-sufficient. It can sell its oil elsewhere in the world - it recently signed a deal with China - and he says France cancelling defence contracts may even boost the Russian economy and Russian jobs.

     
  3.  
    RUSSIAN SANCTIONS 06:41: BBC Radio 4

    Georg Grodzki has now popped up on the Today programme, again talking about sanctions against Russia. He says: "It's very difficult to impose sanctions on a country that needs healthy relations with the West less than the West needs healthy relations with it." He adds Russian can buys the goods they want to from elsewhere. They would prefer to buy goods from the West but if they can't, they will live with it, he says.

     
  4.  
    RUSSIAN BONDS 06:33: Radio 5 live

    Russia cancelled one of its weekly bond sales yesterday, its first in three months, citing "unfavourable market conditions." On 5 live we have Georg Grodzki, formerly of Legal & General, telling us why. Sometimes governments realise they don't need the money he says, but this time that isn't the case. Russia's borrowing costs, which are about 4.6% for five year bonds - already high - have only got worse in recent days, he says.

     
  5.  
    TAX 06:23: Radio 5 live

    "Everyone should pay taxes at a flat rate from the first dollar," says Arthur Laffer, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan on 5 live. People like to avoid tax, he says, and taxing everyone the same should help stop gaming the system, he says. Does that mean taxing the poor the same? Yes, he says. Do you reward tax dodgers then? "They pay the tax rather than doing the dodges," he says.

     
  6.  
    ROYAL MAIL 06:11: Radio 5 live

    James Bevan of CCLA Investment Management is back on 5 live talking this time about Royal Mail's performance. Their annual shareholder meeting is on Thursday and he wants to hear more about the French antitrust case they, TNT and FedEx are involved in. Royal Mail has received notice from French competition authorities over a possible breach of antitrust law by one of its subsidiaries, which could result in a fine for the recently privatised group.

     
  7.  
    TESCO SHARES 06:01: Radio 5 live

    Tesco shares were down yesterday, but when it was announced they were losing their chief executive, the shares rose. How come? James Bevan, chief investment officer at CCLA Investment Management is explaining what he thinks on 5 live. "When Philip Clarke was let go there was also a profit warning," he says. "For that to drive the share price up seemed absolutely mad."

     
  8.  
    06:00: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Hello! You can, as ever, get in touch with your views and experiences via email bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk and via twitter @BBCBusiness.

     
  9.  
    06:00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Good morning everyone. We've had Microsoft second quarter earnings overnight - they were bad - as well as Apple - good- flights into Israel have been halted and there's a row over Russian sanctions to contend with. the morning is only just getting started.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • (File photo) Usain BoltClick Watch

    Challenging the world's fastest man to a virtual race over 40m – can you keep up?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.