Composite vs. Aluminum

March 21, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment

As many of you already know, the biggest breakthrough with the 787 is its all composite design.  Unlike all of the other commercial aircraft to come before it, the 787 has nearly every part made from some form of carbon fiber and epoxy. So what exactly is this “composite” material and how is it any different from the traditional material for airplanes.

First off, nearly all commercial airplanes in service today are made largely from aluminum. Just think of airplanes as a giant roll of aluminum foil flying at mach 0.84, 30,000 feet in the sky. Aluminum has been traditionally used in aviation because it is a rather ductile metal which can be easily worked and formed. In addition, aluminum is also very light making it ideal for something that needs to be as light as possible in order to fly. Composites, refer to any material which is a combination of two different materials. Generally, within aviation composites refer to fiberglass epoxy (glue) materials or carbon fiber epoxy materials.

In the case of the 787, carbon fiber and epoxy is used extensively. Unlike aluminum, carbon fiber require a mold in order to form it to the correct shape. However, it is also extremely light (lighter than aluminum). Of course there are also drawback to carbon fiber such as its inability to take an electric charge (think about lighting strikes in flight). However engineers have developed ways to avoid this problem. Take a look at the video below which goes into detail about creating carbon fiber parts. This is very similar to what Boeing does for many of its parts on the 787.

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