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Stronger, Lighter, & More Affordable: Plastics’ Trio of Benefits Help Fortify Aviation & Aerospace

From interior components to structural elements, here's how aircraft plastics fortify the aerospace and aviation industries.

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Although the aviation and aerospace sectors have put plastics to use since the 1970s, the material provides an exciting new future for innovation in air transport as new polymers are developed that could enable cars to fly and spacecraft to withstand longer periods in hostile environments. From interior components such as navigation functions, to structural elements like side panels, plastics make aircraft stronger, lighter, and more affordable, for both consumers and manufacturers.

Here’s how aircraft plastics fortify the aerospace and aviation industries:

Plastics make aircraft and spacecraft stronger and safer

Like their use in automobiles and infrastructure, plastics are vital to making aircraft and spacecraft stronger and safer. As aviation and aerospace continue to modernize existing aircraft and develop new, more efficient designs, thermoplastics are increasingly replacing traditional materials, like metal and glass. Thermoplastics can withstand higher temperatures, chemicals, and harsh environments and are, in many cases, even more durable than alternatives.

Polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) is an advanced, high-temperature engineered polymer that is resistant to chemicals, extreme temperatures, and flames. It is regularly manufactured to replace engine parts traditionally made out of aluminum. Torlon, the highest-performance thermoplastic, is widely used because it can withstand temperatures of up to 500F and has exceptional mechanical strength. Torlon is used to replace a variety of metal engine parts and outer paneling of spacecraft.

In addition to mechanical applications, plastics are used to upgrade the interiors of passenger jets. Commercial flightsboast seatbelts, air ducts, floor and side panels, ventilation systems, and luggage bins all made out of plastics, which are stronger and less likely to wear down or break compared to alternative materials. Acrylic and polycarbonateplastics, which are used to seal parts and panels together, keep passengers safer than alternatives because they are less likely to wear down, even in harsh environments.

Plastics reduce aircraft emissions by making them lighter

Beyond durability, plastics reduce aircraft weight and result in significant fuel cost savings. Some plastic components can be as much as 10 times lighter than their metal counterparts, and according to CraftTech Industries, each pound of weight reduced on a plane saves $1,000 in fuel over the life of the airplane. By transitioning to high-performance polymers, which have a density of about 1.3 g/cm3, compared to a density of 2.7 g/cm3 for aluminum, operators can reduce weight for parts by over 50%.

Aviation stat chart

With more plastic components, aircraft are lighter, allowing for planes to expand their cargo capacity and make fewer trips, while also reducing emissions. And weight lost is money saved.

Affordable plastic alternatives reduce costs for consumers and businesses

Not only are the inputs to plastic materials less expensive than traditional alternatives like metal and glass, but large-scale production of plastic parts is more cost-effective. Plastics provide operators with a more economical option for aircraft without sacrificing durability or safety, and while also boosting fuel efficiency.

By converting all metal parts, mechanical and interior, to plastic alternatives, overall cost savings could amount to as much as 50%. Operators that replace aluminum with plastic alternatives could save up to 60% within this category of parts.

In 2017, United Airlines reported it saved $290,000 in just one year by removing a single ounce of weight from its aircraft. These savings can be passed on to the consumer. Cost savings further allow the aviation and aerospace industries to continue to modernize and update their fleets with more durable, lighter, and more fuel-efficient parts. Plastics make this possible.

Conclusion

The aviation and aerospace industries have been fortified by plastics’ trio of benefits: stronger, lighter, and more affordable, with an added benefit of increased fuel efficiency. And it doesn’t stop there.

Recent innovations, like the TuFF polymer developed by the University of Delaware, will make electrical vertical take-off and landing aircraft mechanisms available for passenger vehicles. Durable plastic strips, made of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, hold together the $2.7 billion NASA Perseverance Rover that landed on Mars in early 2021, and allow for further space exploration without risking breakdown.

Plastics will continue to be a material that makes aviation and aerospace products more durable, while also reducing costs and emissions outputs, enabling innovation for decades to come.

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