circular economy in aviation and aerospace sectors

Sustainability Snapshots: Circular economy, the next frontier for aerospace and aviation sectors

Aviation and aerospace sectors need to become fully sustainable and climate-neutral. A circular economy approach, also known as circular aviation, is the next frontier for the industry to reach in this undertaking. Our new 6-part blog series Sustainability Snapshots explores the different solutions for circular aviation, and how SUSTAINair seeks to contribute to them. In our first instalment, we look at the current approaches of aviation and aerospace sectors in terms of materials usage

The role of materials in meeting the sustainability challenge

The recent sustainability conversation on aviation and aerospace value chains often revolves around how the aircraft is powered through the air. As the burning of jet fuel causes the majority of carbon emissions during flight operations, the industry needs to replace jet fuel with new propulsion technologies. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) produced from sustainable feedstocks, hydrogen or electric/hybrid-electric are among the main technologies currently discussed to power aircrafts. In a widely covered move, European aircraft giant Airbus recently announced that it would build a demonstrator to test propulsion technology for future hydrogen airplanes.     

However, focusing decarbonization efforts solely on cleaner powering of aviation and aerospace sectors falls short in looking at the whole sustainability picture. The role of materials should not be neglected in bringing the industry on a fully sustainable and climate-neutral pathway. The current predominant linear and extractive economic model still results in the waste of high-quality, aerospace-grade materials. While advances in aircraft decommissioning have led to an estimated 90% reuse/recycle rate of aircraft parts, this still means that large quantities of materials are not valorized.   

Furthermore, despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, societal demand for flying is expected to drastically increase over the coming decades. This is bound to increase resource consumption, waste and emissions along the entire aviation component value chain. It thus becomes paramount to rethink the role of materials, and thereby ensure that high-value aircraft components can be 100% reused, recycled and upcycled. This can also help in making airplane graveyards, or “boneyards”, where massive amounts of aircraft are currently retired (see image below), a thing of the past.  

airplane graveyard
The world's largest airplane graveyard in Tucson, Arizona, in the US (© Wikimedia Commons)

Current industry approach to materials usage

At the moment, there is no real sustainability in how materials are used in the aviation and aerospace sectors. Aircraft production usually relies on steel-based riveting, but these rivets cannot be easily dismantled and recycled. Furthermore, two types of casting are currently used which cannot be mixed, and also results in materials not being easily reusable. In addition to this, aircraft production still remains conventional, energy intensive and wasteful, and does not fully exploit possibilities for sustainable manufacturing (e.g. additive manufacturing, high pressure die casting). 

The quality of materials available to aviation is currently at its highest level in human history. Aircraft giants Airbus and Boeing (USA) each produce more than 1000 airplanes per year, with rival state companies in China and Russia also vastly expanding production capacity. But minimizing demand for materials, energy and waste in line with a circular economy approach, has not yet the same attention in aircraft production as efficiency, and safety and quality compliance. In short, the linear economy model still dominates over the circular economic one in aerospace and aviation sectors.  

Titanium, a key material in aircraft production (©Shutterstock)

Introducing circular economy principles in the industry

How we design, manufacture, maintain, repair, reuse, dismantle and recycle aircraft will be key in optimizing the usage of materials in the aviation and aerospace sectors. The 4 R’s principles of circular economy – redesign, repair, reuse and recycle – applied to the industry brings several benefits to these vital economic sectors, as well as society as a whole. Reducing the (costly) extraction of (finite) materials within planetary boundaries, while fully valorizing the materials used in a virtuous loop, can enable circular aviation to become a reality. Furthermore, it can support in bringing down the sectors’ overall emissions and energy consumption in line with its need to become climate-neutral in the coming decades. 

In the upcoming 5 editions of our Sustainability Snapshots series, we will explore the different solutions for circular aviation, and how SUSTAINair aims to contribute to them. This will cover the entire aircraft life-cycle: design, manufacturing, maintenance, repair & reuse, dismantling and recycling. Each edition will further highlight relevant new developments in aviation and aerospace sectors for each of these circular aviation solutions. Watch this space for more to come soon!