Plastics, composites venture into orbit and beyond

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China’s Tiangong space station will soon receive its second batch of astronauts. Shenzhou 13 is scheduled to launch on October 16, bringing three astronauts to the space station for a six-month mission.

The aerospace industry, which covers a multitude of applications ranging from aviation to industry and the military, has extended innovation to plastic materials in a wider space. While metals remain the mainstay of the aerospace industry, since the 1970s plastics have enabled breakthroughs, notably by reducing the weight of airplanes by up to 50%.

Beyond weight reduction, plastics meet the requirements of the aerospace industry in terms of strength and durability; corrosion and fatigue resistance; impact resistance; thermal stability; and ease of assembly. Materials such as polyetheretherketone (PEEK), polyimide (PI), polyamide-imide (PAI), polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE), among others, are now being exploited for their inherent properties.

Carbon fiber reinforced plastics take off

The shift from heavy metals to lightweight plastic materials has highlighted the use of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. Carbon fiber composites have been used to produce large, complex parts for the aerospace industry. From narrow-body planes such as the Airbus 320 to the best-selling Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s, hardware innovations have created major technological leaps in the aviation industry.

The widebody Airbus A350 XWB is made up of more than 50% composites, which saves fuel costs by 25%. The wing of the A350 XWB, which measures 32 x 6 meters, is the largest single aviation part produced from carbon fiber reinforced plastic.

The Boeing 787 is composed of 50% composites by weight and 80% by volume; the composites allowed a total weight reduction of 20%. Carbon fiber led to stronger body frames and reduced weight, allowing the aircraft to carry more passengers at lower fuel costs.

A giant leap for plastics

High-performance plastics are widely used in the space program, from polycarbonate helmets and protective gear and spacesuits worn by astronauts to interior parts and structures of the spacecraft.

China aims to transform itself into an aviation power, drawing on more than 70 years of technological experience in this field. The country’s decision to implement a manned space program in 1992 saw considerable developments. The launch of the Shenzhou-12 crewed spacecraft in June 2021 to the Chinese space station in Earth orbit Tianhe was a major step towards the construction of the Chinese permanent space station. The three-person crew in the Shenzhou-12 return capsule marked another milestone in China’s space program, the statement from Chinaplas organizers noted.

A special exhibition at next year’s Chinaplas will highlight the use of plastics in the aviation and aerospace industries. Chinaplas 2022 is scheduled for April 25-28 in Shanghai. More information is on the Chinaplas website.


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