Wakeup call

There may be a mountain to climb, but the sector’s journey to NetZero can be a less arduous one thanks to new innovative material technologies in manufacturing that champion sustainability – but engineers and manufacturers must embrace them now.

With the race to NetZero to reduce weight, improve efficiencies and be more cost effective without compromising on structural integrity or performance, there is no doubt that engineers and manufacturers are up against it. The pressure to meet ever stringent market and legislative demands – pressure that has escalated post COP26 – is tangible. We are now all aware that our planet’s resources aren’t finite – including water, coal and oil, with the latter estimated to run out by 2052.

It’s not just in the energy, oil and gas sector either; aerospace, automotive, marine and consumer goods manufacturers are also looking for ways to increase product capabilities and performance while at the same time meeting ambitious goals for fuel efficiency and sustainability.

Advanced composite materials potential
There is of course no quick fix to such a colossal problem, but now is the time for energy engineers to look beyond traditional technologies and embrace long-term change.

Advanced composite materials technology is one area that has significantly evolved over the past few years and offers a lighter weight solution that enhances capability and offers a good value alternative to less newer materials such as carbon and polymer composites, steel, titanium and aluminum, as some of their disadvantages are becoming better understood.

The costs of carbon fibre
Take the wind energy sector. In recent times, carbon fiber-based composites have been the material of choice in modern wind turbines, as its strength and low weight properties have made wind turbine blades more resilient at sea and more efficient in less breezy conditions. Yet as sustainability is now at the top of every industry’s agenda, there is a blot on the horizon which is too difficult to navigate around: carbon fiber is wasteful to produce and difficult to recycle, where most of it ends up as landfill waste, as it cannot simply be melted down. This environmental issue is further compounded by the fact that by the end of 2022, all existing landfill space in the UK will be full, placing carbon fiber under more scrutiny.

Also, the high relative cost of carbon fiber materials, originally developed for the aerospace industry, has prohibited broad adoption of their use within the cost-driven wind industry.

Wind sector opportunities
Global wind power capacity is expected to grow nine percent a year between 2021 and 2030, as countries invest more in renewable energy projects to cut emissions. The sector needs to achieve the milestone of adding 505 GW of new wind power each year to 2030 to be on track to reach NetZero by mid-century. This presents a golden opportunity for new composite materials innovation.

There are a number of other factors propelling the growth of wind turbine composite materials, including stringent environmental regulations pertaining to emissions from burning conventional fuel, more demand for larger blades and increased government support for wind power projects.

Wind turbine components that could benefit from the properties afforded by advanced composite materials include crush washers, shear pins, high-tensile bolts and generator internals. Made up of fiber and matrix, the composite material manufactured from reinforced fiber and matrix is far superior to that of conventional metals such as steel and aluminum. Thanks to the high strength and stiffness of advanced composite materials combined with their low density, they can be used to produce structures with sufficient stiffness to withstand extreme stresses. For instance, crush washers have to withstand a high load without failing and have proved in applications to be 80 percent better in crush than their steel versions.

During the earlier days of the pandemic when the world was plunged into lockdown, we saw the biggest emissions decline since the Second World War. While zero emissions on planet earth is perhaps an impossible outcome, anything less than drastically lower emissions to what we have now will be a catastrophe and provides a very real, existential threat.

Sustainability and the circular economy
Since Covid and COP26, stakeholders have different expectations on businesses now. Sustainability is redefining itself; it is evolving from solely focusing on the sustainable materials, to also taking into account the entire product life cycle and the ability to reuse, which is where the circular economy comes in. The circular economy isn’t just about improving recycling, it also involves getting companies to conserve raw materials, convert waste and be more energy efficient through re-use, remanufacture and repair. This not only places far less demand on the use of materials but achieves as much as 70 percent of material savings, compared to the process of raw materials extraction as seen in the linear economy model. The Circularity Gap Report 2021 states that the circular economy currently accounts for a depressing 8.6 percent of the entire world economy, reflecting the urgent need to find more sustainable ways for global resource extraction and processing. That’s why businesses have another great opportunity, through more ethical and sustainable recycling processes, to put back into their supply chains and avoid landfill. And as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, making products from waste has the capacity to increase overall GDP which in turn will boost the economy as a whole. It also encourages steady, continuous supply of materials for growing industries and individual businesses, something which is key bearing in mind the ongoing global supply shortages.

UK hub of innovation
As we look at ways to pull through the turbulent economy amid unparalleled times, the sector must use the past two years as an opportunity to prompt radical change and not ignore the fact that Covid and COP26 are deafening wake-up calls, to ensure the UK becomes the leading global hub for technical innovation and sustainability by being one of the first countries to achieve NetZero status.

For a list of sources used in this article, contact the editor

Through its R&D activities, Alvant has a world-leading level of understanding of the behavior and performance of industrial Aluminium Matrix Composite (AMC) materials, applying its patented Advanced Liquid Pressure Forming (ALPF) technology developed specifically for the manufacture of Metal Matrix Composites (MMCs). Alvant was established in 2003 and is headquartered in Basingstoke, Hampshire.
For further information please visit: www.alvant.com