Airbus studies green solution for aircraft dismantling work

 - June 2, 2008, 8:16 AM

Airbus claims to have found ways to make aircraft end-of-life dismantling a greener and more profitable business. Administrators of the Pamela (an acronym that stands for process for advanced management of end-of-life aircraft) demonstrator project in Tarbes, southwest France, concluded that about 85 percent of the dry weight of an aircraft can be recycled, rather than the currently accepted maximum of 60 percent. Airbus is now looking for ways to encourage the establishment of dismantling companies around the world.

Noting that civil aviation authorities have issued no rule stipulating the fate of a retired airliner, project manager Olivier Malavallon said that currently the only guiding principle is “What shall not fly again shall be destroyed.”

Because there are no clear rules about how to dispose of an aircraft, there is the risk of careless storage and soil pollution. Aware that some 1,200 Airbuses will be retired in the next 20 years, Airbus management has made planet-friendly aircraft dismantling part of the consortium’s general environmental policy.

Malavallon pointed out that the Pamela project is generic, adding that by 2020, retiring airliners will be 50 percent Airbuses and 50 percent Boeings.

The 32-month Pamela project, which concluded late last year, used an old A300 as a prototype for devising environmentally friendly disposal methods. The dismantling process starts with the decommissioning phase, which consists of cleaning the aircraft and draining potable water, toilet and fuel tanks. The airplane is then parked to conform with Part 145 maintenance safety regs. In this phase, Pamela’s A300 lost 40,000 of its initial 233,500 pounds, thus reducing its dry weight to 193,500 pounds.

The second phase involves removing the engines, APU, landing gear, avionics and ram-air turbine. The engines, for example, can fly again if they’re in suitable condition, otherwise they too will be dismantled. This phase took another 29,500 pounds off the A300.

The third phase is the actual dismantling. First, any remaining fluids are scavenged, and hazardous materials are removed. Then comes the most spectacular job, cutting the airframe apart. Materials are sorted so that each kind of material (aluminum, copper and so on) can join a reverse supply chain and be recycled for sale as a usable raw material. Malavallon said these reverse supply chains are still relatively modest and need to be expanded.

This phase consumes 135,000 pounds, reducing the A300’s carcass to just 29,000 pounds, consisting of cabin lining, cargo-hold lining, insulation materials and parts containing soiled materials. In other words, about 12 percent of the A300’s dry weight was scrapped. Malavallon said to reduce that percentage even further, his group is urging Airbus’s engineers to consider the end-of-life process when designing airliners.

“We proved that recycled aircraft aluminum can be used in airframe construction, whereas previously it was seen as suitable only for non-aviation industries,” Malavallon pointed out. Recycling aluminum consumes 90 percent less energy than producing new aluminum.

Focus on Profits

Of course, the more metal that can be extracted from the carcass for recycling, the more profitable will be the dismantling process, and advanced sorting of the metals at the source makes them more valuable than mixed metals.

The next step, in the second half of this year, is the launch of operations by Tarmac Aerosave, the company that will put Pamela’s results into action. Tarmac is a joint venture of Airbus, Suez Sita (a company that specializes in waste processing), TASC aviation (a Dubai-based Airbus subsidiary that specializes in spare parts), engine maintenance provider Snecma Services, Equip’Aéro (an equipment manufacturing and repair company) and aerospace engineering firm Aéroconseil.

Airbus is considering encouraging the establishment of authorized dismantling centers, with Tarmac as the template for the business model and processes. Still to be addressed is the recycling of composites, material that accounts for just 4 percent of an A300. “We will address these materials in 15 to 20 years, when aircraft with a significant portion of composites reach end of life,” an Airbus executive said.

Current composite recycling appears to yield less value than metal recycling. Composites can be crushed and incorporated into certain kinds of plastic or concrete. They can also be burned to generate heat or chemically processed to recoup fibers. However, such processes are aggressive and compromise the material’s properties to the point that it cannot be re-used in aerospace structural applications. More important, current processes for recycling composites do not produce attractive economics.