Changing Aviation With New Aluminium Alloy

Chinese researchers say their discovery improves aspects of building China's new airplanes.
23 August, 2017
Scientists at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai say they've developed a new kind of lightweight aluminium alloy stronger and more rigid than existing ceramic and aluminium mixes.
The researchers in the School of Materials Science and Engineering say it's an important discovery in nanotechnology that extends the way the ceramic aluminium alloy is used in aviation, as well as in high-speed rail systems and the automotive industry – all areas in which energy efficiency becomes critical.

"The nano ceramic aluminum alloy material helps break the bottleneck of large-scale application in engineering," says project leader Professor Wang Haowei in a recent interview with China Daily. It's already been used in the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space labs, quantum satellites and meteorological satellites. It's also been used in combustion engines for cars, making the components lighter in weight.
What makes the material different is how the materials work together, and how they're manufactured in a 3D printing process that makes them as strong as if they were forged, Wang says. The scientists have been working since the 1990s on ways to better integrate the ceramic and aluminium elements.

Their solution included reducing the ceramic particle sizes from microns to nanometer-level sizes and then mixing them with aluminium in a chemical process that controlled for their size, shape, and particle distribution. The result is a material they say is stronger than titanium alloys and cheaper to make.
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Wang said researchers are working with Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC) to promote the use of the new materials in large aircraft. "The advances in aviation development are closely connected to the progress of materials, and we are closely watching the development and performance of the new material," says Wu Guanghui, a COMAC designer of the C919 aircraft.

It's China's first large passenger plane built at home, and COMAC is eager to use the new material instead of parts that are imported. The project is getting a lot of support from the Chinese government and local materials manufacturers.

The C919 is a logical next step for the new alloy. The plane completed its first successful flight in May, and is a high-profile point of pride for the Chinese. It was flown from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai for 79 minutes, completing the next phase that will put the 169-seat jetliner into service. The achievement makes China's COMAC the first new player in jet aviation on the international scene since 1969. At the same time, in the past two years, China has become the world's largest market for them.
The technology development comes as global manufacturers are seeking new and better ways to achieve lighter weights in aircraft, and achieve the energy savings and emission reductions that come with them. As carbon fiber and other materials make inroads, the nano ceramic aluminium innovation demonstrates the continued need for the strength and safety of aluminium in the aviation market.

But the new material's applications in high-speed rail and automotive manufacturing are likely to change the transportation sector in those spheres as well. The capacity to deliver aluminium alloys that work as hard – and harder – as traditionally manufactured metals is key to achieving sustainability goals, and the new ceramic aluminium alloy is a promising development in doing exactly that.
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