Modern aircraft have come a long way in terms of design and building materials. Engineers have discovered new metal and carbon-based alloys that have excellent properties for uses in aviation. Let’s take a detailed look at these interesting materials and their functions that contribute to a safe and fuel-efficient flying experience!
Commonly Used Materials
The most commonly used materials in constructing aircraft are aluminium, steel, carbon (composites), titanium, fibreglass, and in lesser quantities, ceramics and plastics. More recently, lithium has been bonded with aluminium to create a special kind of alloy, specifically used on the A350 XWB. Each type of material has a dedicated placement and function on board. These materials also have different strengths and weaknesses which means an aircraft will be made out of a vast number of different materials for parts such as the wings, fuselage, body, and skin.
At the time of the Wright Brother’s first flight in 1903, their aircraft was made primarily of wood. Today, many of the Airbus and Boeing aircraft are made from a minimum of 50% composite materials. This is because composites are a newer type of material which are much lighter than most metals and offer similar strength-to-weight ratios to other metals. Anything that can be done to cut down on the weight and drag of an aircraft translates to longer range and improved fuel efficiency.
Placement On Aircraft
Materials such as carbon-composites and aluminium are used to build the body, skin, and fuselage of the aircraft. In high-stress areas (wings, landing gear, and engines) titanium, nickel, and aluminium alloys are used to reinforce these areas. These alloys are also used to manufacture the fan disk, combustion chamber, and compressor blades within the engine which are subject to extreme temperatures under pressure. These parts are then usually coated in ceramic to help enable the parts to withstand the intense heat.
A Note On Titanium
Titanium in particular is a rather interesting metal because its as strong as steel yet only weighs half as much. In the past few years, titanium has been replacing aluminium parts in aircraft manufacturing because of its ability to resist heat and corrosion. Since titanium’s melting point is 1,668°C (3,034°F), titanium is used in the fastening elements, airframe, engine pylons, and landing gear of aircraft.
Fun Fact: On the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, titanium was used for 85% of the structure, with much of the rest made of polymer composite materials. This is because at such velocity, friction with the atmosphere generates temperatures that would melt conventional airframes!
Because titanium is a manufactured metal that undergoes refining and chemical processing, it’s certainly very expensive to purchase and be utilised in the aircraft manufacturing process.
As you can see, all these materials work synergistically to create a strong frame for the aircraft itself, all while confirming to the appropriate weight limitations to increase range and optimise fuel consumption. At the same time, engineers and scientists are further developing and experimenting new materials that can provide better efficiency in this field.
Cover Photo Credit: comsol.com