Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Carbon-Fiber Materials Make for Lighter, Faster Planes

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Carbon-Fiber Materials Make for Lighter, Faster Planes

Article excerpt

SOUTH of Seattle, in one its many production facilities, the Boeing Company is trying to manufacture carbon-fiber airplane parts in a cost-effective way. It's a big challenge, since aluminum costs $6 a pound versus $50 to $75 a pound for composite materials, which are made of layers of carbon-fiber fabric baked at high temperatures.

Given the huge cost disparity, why the push for these high-tech materials?

Dick McLane, the plant's manager of technical integration, explains that this technology would be critical for the development of a new-generation plane known as a "high-speed civil transport." As presently conceived, the plane would travel at 1,800 miles per hour, so fast that friction-induced heat would weaken an aluminum exterior. If titanium were used, a plane would weigh about 1 million pounds, considerably heavier than one made with composite materials.

Even in contemporary aircraft, Mr. McLane says, composite materials have advantages, being at least 20 to 25 percent lighter weight than their metal counterparts (which greatly cuts fuel costs), corrosion-resistant, and able to withstand more wear and tear. They also promise to simplify assembly somewhat: The tail section made here will use 25 percent fewer parts than are used in other Boeing planes.

The company has long used composite materials in various parts, such as landing-gear doors, to cut weight. But the tail and floor struts of Boeing's new 777 plane will be the first "primary" structures to go composite. The 777 will be 9 percent composite, three times greater than current Boeing jets.

"If this is a success, then the percentage {of composites} on succeeding products will be going up," McLane says. The next area to try would be wings, he adds, noting that the cylindrical, window-lined fuselage represents a more complicated engineering challenge. Wings have the added challenge of being fuel-storage areas. …

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