^ Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians install the titanium heat shield to the Orion crew module on 25 July 2018 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Article by James Chater

Airbus A320 in Hamburg
Structure assembly line for the Airbus A320 in Hamburg.
Airbus E-Fan X
The Airbus E-Fan X. a hybrid electric plane.
The Airbus A321XLR.

Boom!

Despite the short-term disruption caused by the CoronaVirus, in the long term the aerospace industry is likely to continue its rapid growth. Boeing’s continuing problems with its 737MAX has dented the company’s profitability, but it has many interesting products in the pipeline and a sizeable backlog. Airbus had to discontinue its commercially unsuccessful A380 “jumbo” jet, but it has shrugged this off with soaring profits and a host of successful products over the whole range of the aerospace spectrum. North America and Europe continue to play a leading role, but China is growing faster, with India not far behind. The aviation boom has created some unexpected newcomers: Spain is now competing with other European countries, and Morocco’s aerospace sector is expanding by a spectacular 18% per year (1).

Commercial aircraft

Ultrafan jet engine
Rolls-Royce’s next-generation Ultrafan jet engine is under construction in Bristol, UK.

The latest addition to Airbus’s singleaisle aircraft is the A220 family, which aims to increase performance and customer comfort in the 100- to a 150-seat market and is designed to complement the longer-range A320.

Production of the A220 began in August 2019, and the company is rapidly expanding its Alabama-based facility to boost production of both aircraft. The A220 is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW1500G geared turbofan engines.
In 2019 Airbus sold 796 of its A320neo, almost eight times more than any other aircraft type. The A320 and A320neo (with a new engine) combined is one of the most commercially successful aircraft ever. A new, automated fuselage assembly line recently opened in Hamburg, with 20 robots. The A320neo family feature new engines by Pratt & Witney and sharklets, which reduce fuel consumption by 15% fuel, rising to 20% by 2020. Toulouse will benefit from the A320 family’s success, with the addition of a digitally enabled A321 line. In June Airbus launched its A321XLR – the longest-range type in the A320 family. Expected to come into operation in 2023, it will open new worldwide routes and extend transatlantic travel.
The Boeing 777X.

Airbus’s wide-body airliner, the A330neo, features new-generation engines and a high-span wing to improve aerodynamics. The wing pylons are made of titanium pylon and the nacelle of composites.

Among larger aircraft, and despite problems with its 737 MAX, Boeing was able to unveil its Boeing 737 MAX 10, which made its debut in November. The largest variants of the 737 family, it seats up to 230 passengers and offers the lowest seat-mile cost of any single aisle aeroplane ever produced.
MAVERIC blended wing body design
Airbus’s MAVERIC blended wing body design.
Following the withdrawal of its A380, the Airbus A350 XWB is now its largest commercial aircraft. It combines carbon composites (53%), titanium and modern aluminium alloys, and is fitted with a Trent XWB engine from Rolls-Royce.
It is likely to be rivalled by Boeing’s 777X, which will be the world’s largest twin-jet aeroplane. Its maiden flight was completed on 25 January. It has a carbon-fibre composite wing and the most advanced commercial engine ever built, GE Aviation’s GE9X.

 

New designs

Airbus satellite, 3D-printed in titanium
Bracket of an Airbus satellite, 3D-printed in titanium.

The last ten years or so have seen the development and introduction of a new generation of more efficient, quieter planes. They all make use of titanium both to save weight – in wing pylons, fasteners, seats – or to withstand the ever-higher temperatures and pressures of jet engines. Will this rate of innovation continue? Looking at what is on the drawing board, the answer has to be a resounding “yes”. Supersonic flight is set to make a comeback, almost two decades after Concorde was retired. Several projects exist, the most mature being the Boeing-Aerion AS2, a business jet seating 8 to 11 passengers, which will fly at Mach 1.4. The aircraft will be made of carbon fibres (fuselage, wings, engine nacelles, tail), aluminium, steel; titanium will be applied in the wing leading edges to protect against erosion.

Another idea whose time has come is the BWB (blended wing body). In this type of aircraft the body and wings structures are merged, with no clear dividing line between them. The structure is designed to reduce the wind drag and would reduce fuel consumption by around 20%. The concept has been around since the 1920s, and recently NASA took it up, and Airbus is hoping that its BWB design can replace the A320neo family. Its MAVERIC design, launched in 2017, took to the skies in 2019.

E-planes

SpaceX Starship
The SpaceX Starship.

A promising development, especially for air taxis and urban travel, is the electric and hybrid aeroplane. Progress is hampered by the weight of the lithium-ion batteries, which have a far heavier energy/weight ratio than jet fuel. So whereas long-distance flights and larger aircraft are still offlimits to electric and hybrid aircraft, shorter distances are much more easily attainable. It could well be that the future of aviation lies in more flights made by smaller aircraft and fewer if any made by larger ones. However successful, electric and hybrid are likely to face stiff competition from next-generation jet engines such as the Rolls-Royce UltraFan. Currently being developed at Bristol, it will be significantly lighter thanks to titanium reinforced carbon-fibre fan blades and a composite housing. It will reduce fuel burn and CO2 emissions by at least 25% compared to the first Trent engine. It is due to enter into service in 2025.

Space Launch System
Boeing is building the Space Launch System (SLS) core stage for NASA’s Artemis I mission. SLS is the only rocket that can carry the Orion spacecraft and necessary cargo beyond Earth orbit in a single mission. Photo: NASA.

About 90 electric or hybrid projects have existed – starting in 1883! – but the first commercial electric aircraft is probably the magniX, which made its inaugural test flight in Vancouver in July. Sweden is investing heavily in infrastructure to make electric aviation viable. Airbus has teamed up with Rolls-Royce and Siemens for the E-FanX project, a hybrid plane. Boeing has flight-tested its all-electric autonomous (unpiloted) passenger air vehicle, which aims to provide a new model for urban mobility.

Drones

Drones are another relatively new area in which titanium is applied, often with 3D printing. Recent examples include Airbus’s Skyway (trialled from March 2019); Titomic’s XXL machine (extra large), made by cold-spraying titanium particles onto the printing medium at very high speed to fuse them together.

Another example is a unique product from Renishaw, a Mach 0.8 rocket powered drone with very thin titanium walls that can withstand very high pressure. Combining very light weight with very high speed, the rocket could be used to collect meteorological data.

Space

Numerous space projects are under development with the help of the private sector. Titanium is well established in spacecraft, having been used since the early Mercury and Apollo programmes.

Airbus’s satellites have brackets that are 3D-printed in titanium by EOS. These brackets connect the body of the satellite to its reflectors and feeder facilities. They provide insulation and must withstand a temperature fluctuation between -180 and 150°C. An uncrewed Orion spacecraft being developed by NASA in 2018 was installed with a protective heat shield to withstand temperatures nearing 5,000° Fahrenheit during its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Naturally, titanium was specified.
Titanium has long been applied in rockets, but 3D printed titanium is enabling more fuel-efficient designs. For example, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab built a rocket engine that uses electric motors to drive the turbopumps. These pumps, together with the cooled thrust chamber, the injector, the pumps and the main propellant valves, were all 3D-printed in titanium.
By far the most ambitious space projects are those of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. The company has scored many firsts, including the successful deployment of a reusable launch system.
Its flagship project is to colonize Mars. This involves landing uncrewed cargo ships in 2022 and sending four additional ships in 2024 including the first people. Crucial in this effort will be Starship, a fully reusable second-stage and space vehicle. It will be powered by Raptor, a new family of methane-fueled fullflow staged-combustion cycle engines, which, though complex to construct, should produce fuel savings. Elon Musk is not noted for favouring titanium for the structural components of his spacecraft, even changing the design of the giant grid fins on the Falcon 9 from aluminium to titanium before settling on welded steel. Similarly, the plans for the Starship itself were changed: although the original plan was to construct the frame in carbon fibre, in the end stainless steel type 301 was specified. This was partly to save money, but mainly because it is easier to weld than titanium and can withstand a greater temperature range than carbon fibre or aluminium.

Reference

(1) www.moroccoworldnews.com; figure is for 2018.