Composite materials made Artemis possible. Here’s how innovation is changing the US airline industry

The Artemis I rocket, NASA’s redesigned aircraft for a new era of spaceflight, has successfully lifted off. It is the beginning of a new era of space exploration.

Artemis follows a long tradition of bringing science, engineering, and creativity together to push the boundaries of what humanity believes is possible.

For hundreds of years, we’ve looked to the sky for inspiration – and it’s led to world-changing breakthroughs. The Wright brothers first flew in 1903. The first passenger plane flew in 1914. The first satellite was launched in 1957. Today, Artemis, the James Webb telescope, hypersonic rockets, and delivery drones inspire a new generation of aviation innovators.

No matter how old you are or how many years you have been in the aviation industry, you will never stop admiring the science behind flying. There is something magical about seeing a 1,265,000-pound, passenger-laden object fly through the air. As magical as this may be, the mathematical equations needed to generate sufficient lift for that much weight limit what is possible.

However, the widespread adoption of composite materials (made to be much stronger and lighter than metals) and specialized polymers with a unique set of properties fundamentally changes the equation.

First used on the heat shield that helped the Apollo missions reenter Earth’s atmosphere, the previously fledgling craft industry has expanded extensively over the past five decades. The vehicles now make up dozens of components ranging from the lighter weight, stronger joints that hold the spacecraft together as it strays from Earth to the spacecraft that the Artemis 3 astronauts wear when they set foot on the moon.

These same technologies are also poised to alter the return journey here on Earth. What if planes weighed much less than they do now? Could they take on new, more energy-efficient forms? Can they go faster? furthest traveler?

With jet fuel costs rising this year to an eight-year high, and new efficiency standards as part of a bipartisan infrastructure law, composites aren’t a futuristic concept — they’ve become a manufacturing necessity. As much as we marvel at the speed and power of planes, engines, and missiles, from a scientific perspective, advanced materials are what unlock the next generation of aviation.

Composite materials have changed what is possible in aviation. As aircraft get progressively lighter and lighter, the effects on the industry become exponential. Hyperloop/hybrid train? why not? Flying taxis? definitely. Solar powered planes? We’ve already done that.

As someone who has spent their entire career in the aerospace industry, I am proud to be a part of that future. I’ve seen rapid vehicle growth with the overall implementation of the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.

Composite materials can be molded and shaped in infinite ways. This means less weight and better aerodynamics, which in turn leads to lower fuel costs and lower carbon emissions. We are now driving advances in commercial aviation and unmanned aerial vehicles that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Imagine the possibilities if planes were cheaper, faster, and lighter. We can replace fossil fuel-powered trucks and ships with clean-energy flying machines. We can reduce road traffic and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can make travel and tourism easier. We can create global increases in our supply chains, preventing a repeat of the supply issues that have plagued us. Advanced materials change the equation, allowing the impossible to be achieved.

The future of aviation can be found in Wichita, Kansas. Last month, Textron Aviation announced a new 180,000-square-foot expansion of its Wichita Distribution Center, citing the growing popularity of its smaller, nimbler aircraft.

Partnerships between researchers and industry experts are critical to industry growth. In just over a year, Wichita State’s National Institute of Aeronautics Research (NIAR) has opened two shared prototype facilities with industry partners.

NIAR is partnering with Spirit Aerosystems to launch the National Defense Prototype Center, which will expand Kansas’ foothold in the aerospace manufacturing market. At the same time, Solvay is working with NIAR to push domestic aviation innovation to new heights at the Solvay-NIAR Center for Innovative Manufacturing, building and testing entire airframes, including wings and fuselage.

The future of aviation may include some of the technologies we’ve seen in the movies, but the truth is that the advancement of specialized composites and polymers has opened up possibilities we have not yet dreamed of.

By bringing together the industry’s brightest minds and shared resources, we can move forward faster and more securely than ever before.

Carmelo Lo Farrow is President of the Materials Division at Solvay and a member of the Executive Committee of the Aerospace Industries Association.

The opinions expressed in articles. Comments are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs luck.

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