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The aerospace sector is under pressure to innovate building materials that not only result in fewer repairs and inspections but that are cheap and can improve the aircraft’s fuel efficiency.
While in service, airplanes require frequent inspections to check that cracks haven’t developed as a result of the varying loads during flight. Inspections are essential to crew and passenger safety, ensuring that these cracks are caught before they get worse; potentially leading to structural failure and fatal accidents.
Use of Nanomaterials in the Airline Industry
However, the airline industry is having to run more cost-effective processes, as consumer trends reflect a favor for low-cost travel. In addition, with an increased global consciousness of our carbon footprint, and with fossil fuels being depleted, all industries are focussing on reducing their usage on non-renewable energy.
As a major consumer of fossil fuels through the burning of jet fuel, airline industries are intent on developments that boost fuel-efficiency, as well as those that produce safer and stronger materials at a lower cost.
Aerospace has found its solution in the use of nanoparticles; incredibly small particles (bigger than atoms but smaller than their bulk material counterparts) that have unique properties due to their size. Recent years have seen significant advancements in this field, as scientists develop applications for nanoparticles.
While they’re only just scratching the surface of the potential of nanoparticles, we know enough to understand their capacity to cause significant shifts in numerous industries, including the aerospace sector.
Nanotechnology is being applied to aerospace engineering in two main ways. The first is that it is being used to improve aluminum. Aircraft fuselages are currently made of aluminum alloys, but research has shown that this material is a candidate for improvement due to a tendency to develop discolorations, grain boundaries, and voids; revealed by electron microscopes. These faults are all factors that can weaken the material, hence leading to cracks and breakage.
Scientists have discovered that the use of a cobalt nanoparticle can improve the strength of aircraft fuselage. Preliminary studies have shown that a fuselage that is default-free can be up to 100 times stronger than the fuselages currently in production. This would mean that less material is needed to make the fuselage the same strength; leading to a lighter plane and, therefore, a reduced use of jet fuel. This hits on both aims of the industry: to improve on fuel-efficiency, and to produce safer, stronger, and cheaper materials.
The second way that nanotechnology is aiding aerospace engineering is through exploring composite materials. Aircraft are using composite materials with greater frequency due to their properties of being both light and strong. Composite materials are constructed of fibers such as carbon interwoven with a polymer, giving them their characteristic strength and endurance. However, the material’s interaction with factors such as UV rays from the sun, impact, moisture, delamination, and lightening is not completely understood.
Improving Composite Materials
Current research into improving composite materials has focused on making them more resilient, protecting them against factors related to air travel. So far, it has been discovered that the addition of nanoparticles into the polymer matrix can result in a material that is stronger and more resistant to damage.
The material is not currently ready to be used in commercial aircraft, as much more testing is required to understand how to distribute the nanoparticles successfully throughout the polymer matrix, which is proving a difficult feat. This process can be time-consuming, but once a reliable method is settled on, the impact on the aerospace sector would be significant. Lighter and stronger composite materials would create more resilient and safer aircraft with better fuel-efficiency.