Orville and Wilbur Wright took humankind's first tentative steps towards powered flight when their prototype aircraft flew 852 feet in 59 seconds at Kittyhawk North Carolina in 1903. Just over a decade later, primitive biplanes were dogfighting, bombing and strafing trenches. By the 1920s, it was possible to cross the Atlantic by aeroplane and the passenger flight was born. Now the race was on to build bigger planes. The more passengers that could be carried, the more money could be made per trip.
The material that made these advances in aviation possible was aluminium. The Wright brothers' earlier unsuccessful attempts at flying had consisted of strapping an automobile engine to their craft. This proved too heavy - but when they refashioned parts of the engine, including the cinder block, from aluminium, their aircraft took off. Aluminium solved more problems as aviation evolved. It enabled aircraft to be lighter, larger and more fuel efficient. Modern aeroplanes use aluminium everywhere. It is used in the fuselage and the wing cases, in the doors and floors, in the rudder and the engine turbines.
However, a new era may be approaching in which aluminium is replaced by a very modern material: carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP). This plastic - reinforced by carbon fibres the thickness of a single atom - is a new ultra lightweight material that has the strength and durability of aluminium but weighs significantly less.
The Airbus A350 became the first aircraft with plastic doors when the company announced that the old aluminium doors would be replaced with doors manufactured from CFRP. The decision decreased weight and costs by 40%. The thermoplastic is also naturally resistant to water exposure, whereas the previous aluminium component needed a special coating to prevent corrosion.
As long as carbon fibre reinforced polymers continue to pass the stringent safety standards expected by the aviation industry, we can only expect their use to become more widespread. The resultant loss of weight may lead to a new generation of super-planes, able to carry twice the number of passengers for the same amount of fuel consumption.
Do you have an idea for how a modern plastic could improve a product or service you offer? Coda Plastics can help. Drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to discuss your ideas.