"Today's carbon fiber industry is really a boutique industry. By proving you can do it at a low cost at scale, we're trying to turn it into a big box store kind of industry, and that could really be a boon for the United States in manufacturing," McGetrick said.
Slashing fuel costs
There is already a huge demand for these boutique products. In commercial aviation, the push for lightweight materials came from fuel price concerns. Global oil shocks in the '70s spurred the airline industry to look for ways to increase fuel efficiency without compromising performance. "That didn't really come from us," said Roland Thévenin, senior composites expert at Airbus. "It was required from our customers."
The company experimented with different carbon fiber components like bulkheads and spars, gradually replacing more and more metal structural components with composites, Thévenin explained. Their first primary part made from composites, the vertical stabilizer in the A310, took wing in 1985. The new A350 has individual carbon fiber parts, such as the A350-900 outer wing box, as large as 32 meters by 6 meters. "What we're doing is an evolution [for each new program], not an evolution," he said.
Carbon fiber coupled with other efficiency measures in the A350 yields a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy over comparable aircraft without such advances. Similar strategies in the 787, which is 50 percent carbon fiber, reduce fuel use by 20 percent compared to competing designs.
However, composites are only part of the story. Scott Lefeber of Boeing's 787 communications team said in an email that for the fuel advantage in the Dreamliner,3 percent comes from materials like composites, 3 percent from systems, 3 percent from improved aerodynamics and 8 percent from better engines. Similarly, Airbus attributes the A350'S fuel savings in equal portions to reduced weight, aerodynamic upgrades and fuel-efficient turbines.
Though carbon fiber parts and efficient engines are already flying on some aircraft on the market, engineers needed a new aircraft to completely capture the efficiency from these upgrades. "For example, the engines are more efficient so the wing doesn't need to carry as much fuel so the wing can get smaller. When the wing gets smaller, the engine can get a little smaller," Lefeber said. "The full benefit of the technology improvements can only be reached with an all-new design."
The savings extend beyond lower fuel costs. Carbon fiber is more durable than metal in a similar role since it doesn't corrode or fatigue as easily, so maintenance will be cheaper over the plane's lifetime. Conventional metal-based aircraft like the Boeing 767 or the Airbus A330 have a service life of 30 years but require a second major structural inspection after 12 years in operation.
"This means that at age 12, a metallic airplane's best years are behind it in terms of maintenance costs," Lefeber said. "The 787 will not undergo its second heavy check until it is 24 years old; the benefit of this to the 787 operator cannot be overstated."
Renewable energy also stands to benefit from advanced materials. In wind turbines, carbon fiber's stiffness means rotors can use longer blades, thereby increasing the efficiency of each individual generator. "The amount of energy captured by the machine goes up with the square of the rotor diameter," explained Joshua Paquette, a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. "Carbon offers a great opportunity for wind turbine blades in that you can increase the strength by a factor of 10 and stiffness by a factor of four for the same weight."
However, there are still some barriers before carbon fiber becomes as common in airliners and minivans as it is in race cars and fighter jets.