New Materials Key To Sustainability, Collins Says

The lightness of composites and more straightforward bonding process for thermoplastics allows for major weight savings when it comes to components like seats.
Credit: Collins Aerospace

New materials such as thermoplastic composites and ceramics are crucial in aviation’s sustainability efforts, thanks to both their lighter weight and improved durability, according to Sam Mehta, president of Collins Aerospace’s recently created “advanced structures” strategic business unit.

Collins took over Dutch Thermoplastic Components (DTC), a specialist in thermoplastics based in Almere, Netherlands, in November 2021. DTC’s capabilities enable the design of subassemblies that do not use fasteners, or fewer fasteners, says Mehta. They can be welded together.

Combined with the intrinsic lightness of composites, the more straightforward bonding process allows major weight savings. Typically, a seat could be 4 kg (9 lb.) lighter, says Mehta. As a lighter aircraft burns less fuel, the improvement would translate into a reduction of 353 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year for a single-aisle aircraft with average utilization, according to Mehta.

One kilogram saved reduces CO2 emissions by 1 kg every 10 flight hours, Collins estimates.

Would switching to thermoplastics involve excessively high investments? The short answer may be no. “You do not need an autoclave,” Mehta says. Moreover, the absence of an autoclave in the manufacturing process means reduced energy consumption. And production cycles can be shortened by up to 80%, Mehta emphasizes.

Certification of a thermoplastic component is not a challenge per se. “The challenge for us is to make sure we plan on the right amount of testing, such as in flammability,” says Mehta.

Finally, thermoplastics are easily recyclable—either within aerospace or in another industry, he suggests.

In carbon brakes, Collins is aiming at more resilience. “That means slower wear,” Mehta says. “Brakes last longer on wing, the time between overhaul increases and the energy needed to manufacture brakes over the life of an aircraft decreases.”

Collins’ engineers are improving brake resilience by 3-4% per year, Mehta says. That rate is due to increasing material density for better friction, refined geometries and new materials, such as ceramics.

The recent combination of two of Collins’ business units—aerostructures and mechanical systems—into the advanced structures strategic business unit may prove its worth with future aircraft designs, Mehta hopes. Wings may become thinner and flexible, thus becoming their own flaps. “The shape of the wing may lend itself to actuation and small gears may replace hydraulic lines,” he explains.

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews.