Resins: A sustainable option for the aerospace industry

Researchers and companies in the aerospace industry are looking for an alternative that is easy to recycle and creates less waste.
Plane turbine being checked
Some of the metal parts of these aircraft have been replaced by other compounds. (Photo: Getty Images)

Industry is always changing, and the pandemic has brought both challenges and opportunities in the supply chain across several industrial sectors, including aerospace. Extensive research has been conducted to produce more efficient products and processes, with some focusing on additive manufacturing and the use of resins in fabricating carbon fiber components.

In an interview with TecScience, Oscar Martinez, a research professor at Tec de Monterrey’s Institute of Advanced Materials for Sustainable Manufacturing, explained how they are developing these revolutionary compounds in partnership with specialized companies such as Honeywell Aerospace, Safran Aerospace, GE Aerospace, and Horizontec for applications such as airplanes and satellites.

As carbon fiber and fiberglass are very difficult to reuse under the traditional process, they generate waste and pollution, which is why they are investigating the alternative of epoxy resin.

What’s more, the objective is to guarantee that these materials have mechanical and durability attributes that are similar or even superior to the properties of traditional materials such as aluminum and steel.

Resins and Composites in the Aerospace Industry 

The aerospace industry focuses largely on developing lighter and stronger materials for airplanes, satellites, and even rockets.

Some of the metal components in these aircraft have been replaced with lighter alternatives like carbon fiber and fiberglass, which are made with epoxy resins. However, there are still a few things that could be improved.

One of these is mechanical strength, which is related to the endurance of the components in comparison to those conventionally constructed of metal. 

Oscar said that the institution is working with Safran Aerospace to determine the best settings for processing epoxy resin to create carbon fiber or fiberglass products.

Materials with equivalent or higher mechanical qualities can be obtained by finding these settings and employing these resins.

“What are the benefits? To begin with, we may increase their mechanical strength, resulting in a more robust yet lightweight design. This also minimizes the volume of material required, resulting in a lighter product with shorter manufacturing periods and a more sustainable approach due to lower material usage,” the researcher remarked.

Making Progress towards Sustainable Materials

Another problem with the production of carbon fiber components is the limited capacity of these composite materials to be recycled or reused.

“This is one of the challenges of composite materials, but reusing them would be a significant gain,” he said.

He explained that reuse is easier than recycling because the latter requires energy or other resources to separate the compounds. As a result, one option under consideration is the facilitation of the recycling process by the use of a specific epoxy resin.

To accomplish this, the Institute of Advanced Materials for Sustainable Manufacturing is working with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) on a project aimed at improving a resin used in the manufacture of carbon fiber. 

Working on the project are Alex Elías, leader of the Accelerated Materials Development Unit at the institute, and Matthew Kirby, a scientist from the Mechanical Engineering Division of the Materials Engineering Department at SwRI.

This resin provides the potential to simplify the process, making it more efficient while also making carbon fiber and fiberglass composites more recyclable or reusable. 

“Our goal is to put in place a program that breaks down the chains to allow for fiber reuse. We are working with Safran and SwRI to develop processes and a new epoxy resin that will be suitable for the reuse and recycling of carbon fiber,” Oscar concluded.

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