New lightweight planes not total answer to CO2 targets, Sheffield University research finds

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A global fleet of new generation lightweight composite planes could reduce carbon emissions by up to 15 per cent - but they alone will not enable the aviation industry to meet its emissions targets, according to new Sheffield University research.

The study is the first to carry out a comprehensive life cycle assessment of a composite plane, such as the Boeing Dreamliner 787 or Airbus 350, and extrapolate the results to every other airliner.

The assessment covers manufacture, use and disposal, using publicly available information on the Boeing Dreamliner 787 fuselage and from the supply chain – such as the energy usage of the robots that construct the planes.

The study compares the results to the traditional – and heavier – aluminium planes.

Emissions during the manufacture of composite planes are over double those of aluminium planes. But because the lighter aircraft use significantly less fuel, increased emissions are offset after just a few international flights.

Over its lifetime a composite plane creates up to 20 per cent fewer CO2 emissions than its aluminium equivalent.

Professor Alma Hodzic said: “This study shows that the fuel consumption savings with composites far outweigh the increased environmental impact from their manufacture.

“Despite ongoing debates within the industry, the environmental and financial savings from composites mean that these materials offer a much better solution.

“The industry target is to halve CO2 emissions for all aircrafts by 2020 and while composites will contribute to this, it cannot be achieved by the introduction of lighter composite planes alone. But our findings show that they should be part of the picture.”