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Monday, October 1, 2007

Aftermarket: New Life for Old Aircraft

THIERRY DUBOIS

Airbus attempts to optimize the aircraft dismantling process with an environmental approach as many aircraft reach the end of their useful life.

Airbus has launched a technology acquisition program on aircraft dismantling processes, dubbed Pamela (which stands for Process for advanced management of end-of-life aircraft). Under the €3.2-million project, the European aircraft manufacturer hopes to optimize current processes from both the environmental and technical standpoints. Airbus also expects Pamela to eventually improve the recyclable percentage of an aircraft and increase the market value of this portion. Other partners are involved in Pamela, including waste management specialist Sita, Airbus’ maintenance sister company EADS Sogerma Services, EADS’ common research center and local authorities — namely the Préfecture des Hautes-Pyrénées.

As a sort of reverse prototype, an Airbus A300 wide-body aircraft is now being dismantled at Tarbes airport, southwest France. "Existing techniques are not optimized so we want to design best practices and promote them," Project Manager Bruno Costes, who is also Airbus’ director for environmental affairs, told AM. He insisted Airbus’ environmental approach is based on a full life cycle assessment, from cradle to grave. The A300 was Airbus’ first design. The first examples are now 30 years old, which is the average life expectancy for an airliner.

The project started in February 2006, when decommissioning of the first aircraft began. In this phase, taking care of hydraulic fluids and fuel is key to protect the environment. The following phase, which was already implemented, was the removal under Part 145 of parts and equipment that will be re-used. Then, the A300 B4 was selectively dismantled in late March. Several technologies and scenarios were tested. There are now no aircraft remains at the Pamela site and all materials were sent to valorization channels and specialized industries. Putting parts safely back into the system does not fall into Pamela’s scope. However, it will be a source of profit in the future, when operations take place on an industrial scale.

Dealing with metal — either recycling parts or cutting panels — will be the main job. Aluminum alloys account for 77 percent of an A300 airframe. "Material mapping is all the more important as we should avoid mixing alloys and parts that are not compatible," Costes pointed out. In addition to airframe material mapping, Airbus performed chemical diagnoses and physical characterizations.

Materials were identified according to their ability for being valorized (tires) or even recycled (copper alloys from electrical wiring). Airbus and its partners achieved a valorization level greater than 85 percent (in weight), which was the given target for the project. Recycling rates range from 50 to 70 percent depending on recycling channels technologies, not considering economics.

According to Costes, there are as many recycling ways as materials. Hence the great interest of having Sita, a Suez subsidiary, as a partner. Local authorities will take care of regulatory aspects.

An A300 contains only four percent of composite materials. "We will acquire knowledge and develop solutions to be ready by 2015, when aircraft with a significant portion of composites reach end of life," Costes noted. "In addition to existing composite recycling solutions, new technologies are currently emerging and need to be further assessed with material batches coming from aircraft dismantling. However, constant flow and consistent quality remain a concern for composite valorization channels," Costes asserted.

However, those methods to recycle composites appear to yield less value than metal recycling. Aluminum is being re-used by non-aerospace industries and Airbus and its partners are investigating the conditions under which it could be re-used in aerospace construction. Composites can be crushed and then incorporated into some kinds of plastics or concrete. They can be burnt to recuperate heat. They also can be chemically processed to recuperate fibers. But such processes are aggressive and debase the material’s properties, Costes told AM. Today the question is whether these "recuperated fibers" can be re-used in aerospace and if not, in which industries? Costes added Airbus is exploring other ways to recycle composites. Separately, a UK-based company claims to have developed an improved composite recycling process (see box this page).

Airbus aircraft should be more recycling friendly in the future. "We will feedback our design engineers with data on end-of-life management," Costes said. The idea is to take ease of dismantling into account right from the design phase.

"The forecast shows that worldwide, 200 to 300 commercial aircraft will have to be dismantled each year over the next 15-20 years," Costes said. Airbus does not want to see them rusting away on the side of airfields. So will Airbus one day become a player in the dismantling area? "This is not our core business," Costes answered. However, Pamela does include a "business case" study task. The analysis is underway to determine whether and how dismantling can be profitable.

Costes insisted Airbus’ point is to demonstrate processes and promote the resulting standards. An industrial business was jointly announced this year. This new company is called Tarmac-Aerosave, which will propose storage facilities and a safe dismantling process for the aircraft that will not fly again. The infrastructure is currently under construction with first operation targeted to begin in June 2008.

The Pamela project is part of the European Commission’s Life (L’instrument financier pour l’environnement) initiative. Pamela supports the future vision of green aviation in the frame of ISO 14001. It is a true step-change approach compared to current practices. Pamela demonstrates that the commercial aerospace industry can meet valorization and recycling targets in line with those achieved by other best in class industries. The demonstration is pegged to end late in 2007 or early in 2008 but could be extended beyond that.

Franco-French Rivalry

Rather than joining forces, two French locations are competing in the narrow segment of aircraft recycling. A 350-statute-mile drive northbound from Tarbes, Châteauroux airport and local companies such as Bartin Recycling Group last spring joined the Boeing-led Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA). The AFRA says it wants to establish and promote new recycling standards — just like Airbus’ Pamela project.

Interestingly, another AFRA member, UK-based Milled Carbon, claims to have developed an improved carbon fiber recycling process. The company uses pyrolysis to remove any resin or binder from the carbon. It asserts the resulting fibers are only slightly lower in properties than virgin carbon fibers.

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