EADS Innovation Works is the partner and funder of the Utopium project.
The project proposes to investigate the development of unique high potential carbon nanotubes (CNT) polymer composite structures with a high potential for application in aerospace industry.
The research will include growing CNT forests (in the newly developed CNT lab at Exeter) and application of Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) principles and technology for manufacturing of the new CNT composites.
CNTs are of great interest for the next generation of composite materials due to their exceptional mechanical and physical properties.
ALM is highly novel, disruptive technology that will lead to major changes in the way a diverse range of engineering components are manufactured, using direct deposition of materials to create structures in an additive manner. Due to its versatility it is possible to process various polymer, metal and composite materials, constructing complex geometries such as cellular and hierarchical structures. ALM thus has potential for direct manufacture of high performance aerospace components.
The project aims to address: 1. An approach towards making fully aligned and dispersed bulk CNT/polymer composites, which is to date not yet possible. 2. An approach towards the application of an additive layer manufacturing philosophy; with the goal of eventual exploitation in ALM methods and equipment.
The Airbus ALM programme is also now operating over 20 collaborative projects across national and international funding agencies, in addition to the industrial and academic partners, which means that some traditional methods of operating have had to be changed.
In the case of titanium, using ALM reduces the extraction requirement for Rutile by 25 times against the same component machined conventionally. Titanium extraction is highly energy intensive, CO2 emissions for the production of 1 kg of titanium in fossil fuel dominant regions is 9 tonnes. So, if that 1 kg of Titanium becomes 1 kg of component, it costs only 9 tonnes. Conventional manufacturing means you need 25 kg of titanium for 1 kg of component, which will cost about 250 tonnes of carbon.
Airbus are of the opinion that a fully ALM enabled aircraft will be 60% cheaper to make, and also 30% lighter, which again is saving energy in terms of what is needed to fuel it and get it off the ground
A great example of the groundbreaking research that goes on within Airbus and the ALM team is called UTOPIUM. Dr.Ben Farmer, Composite Technology Integrator at Airbus, explained, “UTOPIUM is the integration of ALM with Carbon Nano-Tubes (CNTs), which offers the same degrees of ‘selective’ freedom and control of ALM, but with the advantages of aligned and controlled, structural and multifunctional reinforcement.”
“Whilst this is in its early stages of development, the benefits could be quite extraordinary. It combines the topolological freedom of ALM with an analogous, morphological freedom. There are wider benefits for highly efficient intelligent structures, combining multi-functionalities such as electrical conduction, communication and morphing, with easy recycling capability for end of life disposal. This drives a whole new way of thinking in product architecture, design methodologies, material science and new tool sets for modelling and validation. It could be a new paradigm in engineering and its resultant products.”
A fully ALM enabled aircraft is still some way off, but the team are in the middle of a process that will put an ALM part on the next generation of Airbus aircraft.
After running through an application matrix that assesses current capabilities, sizes and material specifications versus all of the parts on the next generation airframes, certain parts have been identified as ALM options and are currently being developed alongside the DAMASCUS (Direct Additive MAnufacture of Safety Critical primary strUctureS) programme.
Whilst these technologies are being developed for 2020 and beyond, Airbus has to start using the technology now to ensure it is ‘industrially and environmentally sustainable’. With step change technologies it means developing widespread knowledge, skills, design, manufacturing, material and quality systems early on, and in order to integrate into the supply chain.
Dan Johns expanded, “The benefit of ALM already observed at small scale is significant, but the challenge is to apply these benefits on very large products. The ‘scale-up programme’ is as much about scaling the knowledge as it is scaling the capability. Once we have applied the technology, it is just an engineering and funding challenge to scale up to the bigger parts in the future.