New Research Shows Lighter Composite Planes Are the Future

According to new research a fleet of composite planes could reduce carbon emissions by up to 15%, but lighter planes alone will not enable the aviation industry to meet emission targets.

The study, undertaken by the Universities of Sheffield, Cambridge and University College London is the first of its kind to carry out extensive life cycle assessments of planes made using advanced composite materials, such as Boeing’s Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB.

The life cycle assessment covers manufacture, use and disposal, using publicly available data on the Dreamliner fuselage and from the supply chain – such as the energy usage of the robots that manufacture the planes. The study compares the results to the traditional and heavier aluminium planes.

Emissions during the construction of the composite aircraft are over double those of aluminium planes, but because the lighter aircraft use significantly less fuel, these increased emissions are offset after just a few international flights. Over its lifetime, a composite plane creates up to 20% fewer CO2 emissions than its aluminium equivalent.

Professor in Advanced Materials Technologies at the University of Sheffield, Alma Hodzic, said:

This study shows that the fuel consumption savings with composites far outweigh the increased environmental impact from their manufacture. Despite ongoing debates within the industry, the environmental and financial savings from composites mean that these materials offer a much better solution.

The researchers fed the data from the life cycle assessments into a wider transport model to gauge the impact on CO2 emissions as composite planes are introduced into the global fleet over the next 25 years, taking into account other factors including population, economic prosperity, oil prices and speed of adoption of the new technology.

The study, published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment estimated that by 2050, composite planes could reduce emissions from the global fleet by up to15 % relative to a fleet that maintains its existing aluminium-based configuration.