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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Sustainable Materials in our Industrial Economy

Two things struck me this week about composites, materials in general, our industrial economy and our warming planet. The first was the announcement in Composites World that an aircraft recycling company headquartered in Prestwick, Ireland, EirTrade Aviation, is going to accept the first two Boeing 878 Dreamliners that have reached their 10 year life and manage their disassembly and parts consignment. This means that the parts from these two Dreamliners will be available later this year. EirTrade Aviation has established facilities, processes, and a global parts network that has solid relationships with airlines; Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) companies, and OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) in the commercial aircraft business. And they are focused primarily on Boeing and Airbus airframes because these are the only two large transport commercial aircraft companies in business today.

The second thing that struck me was the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the planet is likely to cross the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming from pre-industrial levels by 2030. This, for someone that grew up in the Pacific Northwest among some of the wonders of our biosphere, is a very troubling report. We are already having atmospheric river storms in California and parts of Africa are seeing severe drought – primarily caused by the increased energy in our atmosphere because of an average overall warming. The atmosphere is after all a huge heat engine (sorry, Mechanical Engineer speaking here). So, the more energy you put into it the more unstable and active it becomes.

So, what does any of this have to do with composites (except the Dreamliner of course)? Well, that is the question of the day for me. And the answer to this question has to do with how our industrial economy creates the materials that we all use in our everyday lives without even thinking about it. One of the examples that stands out to me is how the raw materials and precursors for composites are actually made – and what they are made out of. Almost all, if not all of the current composite precursors come from petroleum and petroleum by products. That means that the composites business is completely tied to the oil business. And it is the production and use of oil and gas (petroleum) that we need to get away from, and get away from very quickly, if we hope to have a planet to survive on and prosper as a species.

What this means for composites is that we have to get to the circular economy that I have talked about in previous posts as soon as possible. This may seem like it shouldn’t be much of a challenge, and on the surface it may look that way. Unfortunately, however, not only the precursors for composites come from petroleum, but the energy source for their extraction, processing, and manufacture also come from petroleum. It takes quite a bit of heat energy to create a carbon fiber – especially once you have a PAN (PolyAcryloNitrile) fiber that you want to make into a modern carbon fiber. You have to heat these fibers in an inert atmosphere to drive off everything that isn’t carbon to make these fibers. And that takes a lot of heat, which comes almost exclusively from oil or gas fired furnaces. It is not enough to just use natural fibers made from plant fiber to make these high technology, high performance, high quality carbon fibers that are ubiquitous in the aerospace industry. Even if you start with a flax fiber for instance, you still have to put it through the carburization process to make a carbon fiber. That has to happen in the gas or oil fired furnaces with an inert atmosphere.

The resin business is not that much different. It is a bit more nuanced since the resin business is a bit of organic alchemy, but the process energy required to manufacture the resins – which are of course petroleum based – comes from oil and gas – petroleum. We haven’t gotten to the point where renewable energy is being used as a predominant source of process energy for any of our industrial processes yet, but we need to do so just to allow our children and grandchildren to have a world that they can live reasonably comfortably in.

Ultimately, all of the precursors for composites will need to come from plants. And, we must ensure that our designs, processes, resins, fibers, and finished products are inherently recyclable, reusable, and/or can be easily broken down into their original constituents and made in to new products. As we work toward that sort of economy, we must be mindful of our agricultural practices as well as our industrial manufacture and recycling/disassembly processes to ensure that they are sustainable as well. What we ultimately want is to create materials from water, air and sunlight – and little else, and return those products either to new products or to water, air, and soil. And, yes, I know this is the ultimate solution and some may call it a dream, but if we don’t have that as a goal we will never even come close.

We have to dream big or we won’t get there.


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