Alcoa launches new aerospace aluminum to challenge composites

At the Paris Air Show, Alcoa announces a new set of aluminum-based solutions for the aerospace market targeting short-range aircraft. The company says the new material is lighter and less expensive to manufacture than composites, and allows equivalent cabin pressure and humidity.

Alcoa (Pittsburgh, Pa., USA) on June 9 at the Paris Air Show announced it has developed a new set of aluminum-based solutions for the aerospace market that reportedly will allow airframers to build lighter and lower-cost short-range airplanes at lower production risk than composite-intensive planes.

The new solutions, which combine new alloys and advanced structural technologies, use Alcoa sheet, plate, forgings and hard alloy extrusion products across aircraft structures, including airplane wings and fuselage elements. The new technologies are said to:

  • reduce the weight of the plane by up to 10 percent vs. composite-intensive plane
  • reduce the cost to manufacture, operate and repair planes by up to 30 percent vs. composite-intensive planes, with production risk
  • allow for a 12 percent increase in fuel efficiency, on top of the 15 percent from new engines
  • deliver passenger comfort features equivalent to composite-intensive planes, such as higher cabin pressure, large windows and higher humidity.

“The decisions made in the past decade to build the first composite-intensive aircraft were a huge wake-up call for us,” said Mick Wallis, president of Alcoa North American Rolled Products who is responsible for Alcoa’s aerospace sheet and plate products. “In hindsight it was the right decision for the time — when advanced aluminum solutions were not as developed — but our technology solutions have made quantum leaps since those decisions.

“And it’s important to keep in mind that the mission requirements of short-range airplanes are dramatically different than those of longer-range planes,” added Wallis. “With these new solutions we are confident we can add value to airframers in their short-range offerings, just as we have proven with longer-range planes…and the market research we’ve conducted says we are not alone in that belief.”

The combination of Alcoa solutions results in short-range aircraft that meet or exceed airframer targets for corrosion resistance, aerodynamic drag, maintenance requirements and fuel efficiency along with improved buy-to-fly ratios. Alcoa says the improvements it developed for a new short-range aircraft can generate up to a 12 percent increase in fuel efficiency on top of the 15 percent improvement from new engines.

Included in the new solutions portfolio are advanced alloys and third-generation aluminum lithium alloys that result in up to 7 percent lower density in major structural applications along with critically important corrosion resistance. Alcoa’s most-recent aluminum lithium alloys were selected for large commercial aircraft plate applications and are being used on planes about to enter the marketplace. These newest aluminum lithium alloys provide additional enhanced performance.

New improvements in aerodynamics for skin sheet developed by Alcoa reportedly reduce skin friction drag by up to 6 percent. In addition, new advanced structural technologies using forged, extruded, and rolled products enable increased wing aspect ratio for improved fuel savings, provide up to 10 times the damage tolerance vs. conventional alloys, and allow increased cabin pressurization for enhanced passenger comfort, on par with all new aircraft structures in development today.

“As we began work on these new solutions, we wanted to ensure they contribute to all four phases of a plane’s life cycle,” said Eric Roegner, president of Alcoa Forgings and Extrusions. “In the first phase, when it is built, we will lower manufacturing and assembly costs and reduce program risks for the airframer through established high-volume supply chains and reduced investment requirements via existing infrastructure…and aircraft operators want the reduced risk associated with timely delivery.

“In the second phase, when customers fly the plane, the lower weight and aerodynamic technologies will increase fuel efficiency by up to 12 percent on their own and up to 27 percent when new engines are factored in,” said Roegner.

Wallis added, “In the third phase, as airlines maintain the plane, we will lower costs because of enhanced corrosion resistance that helps with emerging inspection interval requirements. And, in the last phase — the end of life or retirement of the plane — aluminum’s infinite recyclability puts it head and shoulders above other materials in that it can be turned back into useful products again and again.”