Lightweight materials take off

18-12-2013 | Foresight | Pieter Busscher

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Advanced composite materials offer efficiency gains

Population growth and changing consumption patterns are constantly putting additional pressure on our finite base of natural resources. Although historically, we were mainly concerned with increasing supply to match the rising demand for resources, it is now widely understood that this can’t be sustained forever. Increasingly, the focus is on making productivity gains, notably via advances in materials science.

The evolution of materials usage in new generation aircraft over the past few decades is a great example of the broader trend towards lightweight materials in various industries, including the auto sector. Airliners and aircraft manufacturers, in particular, have had to respond decisively to a rapidly-changing operating environment, characterized by a sharp increase in fuel prices. In seeking to lower fuel consumption per passenger – by far the largest operating expense for airliners – the strategy was simple: make bigger and lighter planes, and/or power them with more fuel-efficient engines. The introduction of innovative materials was crucial in making this a reality. Lightweight materials such as aluminum and titanium-based metal alloys, as well as composite materials such as carbon fibers – which are 4x lighter and up to 10x stronger than steel – now account for some 50% of the structural weight of new aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.

For legacy aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, the scope for making significant changes to the structural composition of the airplane is limited. The focus has thus been on powering them with more fuel efficient jet engines. For instance the new engines that will power most Airbus A320 NEO and Boeing 737 MAX models use composite fan blades and ceramic matrix composites to improve efficiency. But the use of higher-efficiency engines is not limited only to legacy aircraft. For example, Rolls Royce’s new Trent XWB engine, used in the new Airbus A350 XWB, offers 25% in fuel savings compared to previous generation models, with advanced materials being instrumental to attaining these performance specifications.

Among others, companies such as carbon fiber composite producers Hexcel Corp. and Cytec Industries Inc., as well as titanium maker Allegheny Technologies Inc. are well-positioned to benefit from the long-term structural trend of materials substitution in commercial aerospace. 

"With Boeing and Airbus order backlogs at an all-time high, commercial aerospace is by far the industrial segment with the greatest visibility over the next five years."

pieter-busscherPieter Busscher
Portfolio Manager RobecoSAM Smart Materials Strategy

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