One of the most significant goals in the international aeronautics industry today is increasing efficiency and thus reducing the use of fuel, which would save on high fuel costs and help reduce global warming. One strategy is to reduce the weight of planes. And an increasingly popular method of weight reduction is the use of composites, especially carbon fiber reinforced plastics, in place of the metals that have been standard throughout the history of aviation.
These composites consist of plastic that has been impregnated with filaments of carbon fiber to form a thin fabric. To create structures such as those used in airplane parts, these fabrics are layered into a mold, with the weave aligned in particular directions to ensure optimal strength. The composite is then cured and checked, usually with ultrasound, to ensure that each piece has no interior imperfections. The resulting material is light, strong, durable, and resistant to swings in temperature.
Spain began developing its expertise in carbon fiber composites when Spanish companies created parts for the European space launcher decades ago. Though the aeronautics industry has long relied on sturdy metals that have been tested and employed for decades, Spanish companies bet on investing in further research on carbon fiber, a bet that has paid off as these materials gain wider use in aviation. The Airbus 400 military plane will be the first Airbus plane to be made with carbon fiber wings. About a quarter of the structures in the new Airbus 380 will be made of carbon fiber, and the A350, still in the design stages, is expected to contain even more. Boeing is increasing the carbon fiber percentage of its 787 to 50 percent. Spanish companies are in a unique position to capitalize on this growth.
Much of the research on carbon fiber in Spain takes place at the sprawling Airbus and EADS-CASA facilities located in Madrid, Toledo, and Seville. These facilities are some of the largest in Europe. In Toledo, research at the Airbus Advanced Composites Center has focused on how to design and manufacture large curvature panels from carbon fiber. Because of this research, the material has been used in large sections of the fuselage of major commercial aircraft for the first time.
Another top player in the Spanish market is Aernnova, formerly Gamesa Aeronáutica. The company began operations in 1993, building parts for the aviation company Embraer and soon thereafter for the helicopter company Sikorsky. By developing, designing, and building major parts for planes out of carbon fiber and titanium, Aernnova created new methods and techniques to ensure product strength and safety.
The company today is taking its expertise to American aviation giant Boeing, with hundreds of engineers in both Seattle and Madrid working to make planes lighter (thus more environmentally friendly) and designing structures for the fuselage. As part of its continuing work, Aernnova is part of a new European consortium working on "clean skies"— the design and production of environmentally friendly aircraft.
"From a technological point of view, we are developing and continuously applying R& D to new product development," says Ignacio López Gandásegui, president of Aernnova. "Logically these activities are primarily taking place in structures, which is our main activity. We are continually working with new materials and new production systems for these materials."