Economical and sustainable approaches complementary to carbon-neutral novel propulsion systems are needed to secure the reduction of aviation’s environmental impact across the entire supply chain. Circular aviation is claiming its stake, and stakeholders from research and industry of the European aviation and aerospace sectors met virtually on June 8, to identify its opportunities and challenges. Their message: think about end-of-life already in the aircraft design stage. How can we bring such thinking closer to the aviation´s supply chain?
‘Circular Aviation for Green Growth‘ was a virtual 2021 EU Green Week Partner Event, that attracted almost 200 participants. The panellists addressed the trends in research, key enabling technologies, and business cases attributing to reduction of aviation’s environmental impact beyond in-flight operations. The panellists represented Association of European Research Establishments in Aeronautics (EREA), the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE), AIRBUS, CleanSky Joint Undertaking, and Jet Maintenance Solutions. The SUSTAINair coordinator Jürgen Roither of AIT (Austria), and Stein Janssen of KU Leuven (Belgium) split the effort of moderating the two sessions, bridged by the welcome of the project officer for aviation at CINEA, Hugues Felix.
Loops of aerospace supply chain(s)
To reap the benefits of circular approaches, the panellists suggested to focus on the need to close the loop for aerospace materials by coordinating across the aviation supply chain and even across industries.
Among the identified challenges, the most prominent are the lack of transparency and traceability of materials and an aviation-specific database allowing complex LCA models. The latter is currently under construction by EcoDesign of Clean Sky Joint Undertaking.
Digitalization permeates the conversation around advanced materials, their recyclability, and manufacturing in the same manner as when talking about onboard operations and air traffic management operations. Smart materials which may monitor their own structural health and predictive maintenance are within the research and innovation scope of the featured H2020 projects: MORPHO, DOMMINIO and SUSTAINair. Together with the EcoDesign transversal activity of Clean Sky Joint Undertaking led by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the mentioned projects develop technologies enabling scalable industrial recycling of composites and new materials.
History has taught us that aerospace innovations find their way in other industries. Recycling of advanced materials or re-usability of high-quality materials are technological spill-overs that can fuel sustainable breakthroughs in other industries leading to greater resilience of economic activity.
Towards the first fully circular flight by 2050
The COVID-19 showed us that “old” ways of doing things are not an option anymore. In aviation and the sectors across the board, being lightweight and strong is an advantage.
“In AIRBUS, we regard materials as fast track technology essential for competitiveness as well as for our goals to reach net zero aircraft by 2035,” said Isabell Gradert the Airbus Fast Track Leader for Materials and the General Advisor for Materials Technology to the Chief Technology Officer.
And the value of the aerospace materials can be retained if thinking about end-of-life and recycling is distributed equally across the lifecycle phases of the aircraft, starting with the design phase. Ligeia Paletti, Circular Aviation theme leader in Future Sky, a flagship programme of EREA (Association of European Research Establishments in Aeronautics), explained that circular aviation aims to design and manufacture air vehicles that are reusable, recyclable and recoverable.
“Circular Aviation’s goal is to enable first fully circular flight by 2050“, so Ms Paletti.
The wild west of aviation data calls for a sheriff
To achieve the goal of circular aviation, next to traceability and transparency, the lack of a common aviation-specific material database has proven a challenge. Designing with the end-of-life in mind is also an objective of the EcoDesign transversal activity of Clean Sky Joint Undertaking. For this reason, EcoDesign is building an aviation-specific database allowing to carry out complex live-cycle analyses (LCAs). Various industry partners provide the data.
“The database we are developing is internal to Clean Sky 2 at this point. But we will be looking at various opportunities to share widely via dissemination actions around 2023, “assured Sonell Shroff, project officer for EcoDesign of Clean Sky Joint Undertaking.
Regulate the aircraft end-of-life?
The showcase session with Horizon 2020 and Clean Sky projects, moderated by Stein Janssens, KU Leuven (Netherlands), illustrated how the research and innovation in the aeronautical industry could spill over to fuel breakthroughs along the entire aviation supply chain and beyond.
How important it is to find scalable industrial solutions to currently non-recyclable polymer composites and to reduce downgrading of the current recycling practices was put forth by Irene Fernandez Villegas, representative of SAMPE (Society for Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering) and associate professor in Aerospace Engineering at TU Delft (Netherlands).
“Such solutions will be in great demand when the A350 and Boeing 757 retire. However, they will also benefit the wind turbines industry, where 10% of its non-recyclable materials are composite components“.
SAMPE representative also expressed renewed surprise that aircraft decommissioning, in contrast with non-aviation sectors such as shipping and electronics, is still not regulated. On the global level, AFRA (Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association) does provide training in best industry practices for aircraft decommissioning. However, nothing is binding the companies to adhere to those practices. EcoDesign and AIRBUS representatives expressed similar views on the demand for coordinated policy action when it comes to sharing best practices for aircraft end-of-life and harnessing the European digitalization agenda that effectively supports data transparency and traceability.
About the organizer #SUSTAINair
This EU Green Week Partner Event was organized by the 11 project partners within the SUSTAINAir project (SUSTAINablility increase of lightweight, multifunctional and intelligent airframe and engine parts). SUSTAINair is a 3,5-year Horizon 2020 project started in 2021. The FutureSky programme of EREA has endorsed the project. SUSTAINair has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101006952.