Aluminum’s Hidden Benefits for Aerospace

By Robert Mark on May 31st, 2012

Thierry Dubois and I have known each other for many years although I can’t even recall how we met any longer. I just recall that we became friends years ago once we realized we were both hardcore aviation journalists. But in addition to his European-based perspective, Thierry’s also a science guy as you’ll read here. I’m happy to offer him an opportunity to share this great story about why just about everything is worth recycling. — Rob

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My friend Emmanuel the photographer and I left our Peugeot Partner just behind the gate and walked to the factory’s security post, dwarfed by huge power lines. We traded our driving licenses for visitor badges and were given the directions to the meeting room. On the map, here at Constellium’s Issoire, France factory, conspicuous was a brand-new building labeled “Airware.”

Airware is the family name Constellium (formerly known as Alcan Engineered Products) is using for its new aluminum alloys being developing for aerospace. I expected us to spend time visiting the Airware building. We did not even get close to it. Yet, Airware technologies for improving alloys and recycling them were the topic of the visit.

The Issoire foundry site is full of secret recipes for the metal alloys aircraft manufacturers use to make fuselages, landing gear beams, wing skins etc. During the press tour, Emmanuel and his colleague photographers could do their job but within strict limits, even in the facility that houses a rolling mill that looks like a 1960s’ heavy-industry machine. Maybe a competing aluminum product developer would have easily spotted some high-tech details.

At stake is reducing the amount of wasted metal offcuts and turnings. In other words, economical and ecologic motivations meet in Issoire, maybe more intensely than in other parts of the aerospace world. If you recycle one pound of aluminum alloy, instead of producing one pound of “new” metal, you save 11.4 pounds of CO2.Our hosts estimated the technologies in the Airware building were too confidential to let journalists in. Recycling has become so critical to the aluminum industry that some recycling techniques are proprietary—just like the alloy composition itself. Depending on how much copper, silver or lithium you throw in the mix, you give the alloy different properties. Some new alloys are so valuable that you just waste too much value if you don’t collect the offcuts, turnings etc.

At this level of sophistication, you have to make sure you don’t mix one aluminum alloy with another aluminum alloy or you risk weakening the finished product. Therefore, Constellium is striving to keep turnings and offcuts well sorted during their entire recycling journey. Constellium even enforces these efforts at the customers’ machining facilities.

In recent years, oil-based composite materials have gained considerable ground against aluminum on airframes with their claims of weigh savings. However, composite recycling is virtually non-existent. Right now, recycling composites is simply too costly because the important elements – the long carbon fibers aerospace needs – often break in the process. In an era where the demand for commodities like oil is greater than the planet can deliver, recycled aluminum like the metal coming from this Constellium factory may well have an edge.

Thierry Dubois is a freelance writer specializing in aerospace technology. Based in Lyon, France, he has a degree in fluid dynamics and a strong interest in how aviation can become greener. He writes mainly for AIN, Rotor & Wing, Science & Vie and aerobuzz.fr

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One Response to “Aluminum’s Hidden Benefits for Aerospace”

  1. RayLRiv Says:

    AWESOME, AWESOME post. And Thierry Dubois is now another hero of mine. Love the fact that he’s got a degree in fluid dynamics – and has the facility to explain things in an easygoing way.

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