Elements of Flight

No matter the destination, chemistry is making flying more enjoyable (and safer and more eco-friendly).

When it comes to the modern marvel of flight, physics tends to hog the spotlight. Still, chemistry enables much of the underlying technology—from helping create the plane’s composite shell to helping manufacture the digital circuitry that brings the latest movies to passengers’ seats.

 

Flying the chemistry-friendly skies

Vacation fun can’t happen without chemistry. Lubricants like Krytox™, for instance, allow scuba tanks to withstand harsh conditions in the deep, grease up performance bicycles, help drive wave makers (the machines that generate artificial swells in wave pools), and much more.

But vacationers might never be able to get to all this fun were it not for the magnificent machines that transport them thousands of miles over all sorts of terrain: airplanes. The wonders of chemistry operate at full thrust in the open skies.

With the aerospace industry, science has already made the once-unimaginable a daily reality—millions of passengers traveling in great safety and comfort miles above the earth through the most extreme conditions. And today, chemistry is bringing even more fuel efficiency, safety, and comfort to air travel.

A factoid explains that 18 billion pounds of fuel has been saved since the Boeing 787 Dreamliner began service seven years ago (from 2011 to 2018).

 

Something special in the air

Lightweighting—shaving pounds for better performance and fuel economy—may be a relatively new practice in the auto industry, but for aviation, plane weight-watching goes as far back as the Wright brothers. Now, science is helping airline manufacturers make new strides in that department. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which began service in 2011, was designed to save 20% to 25% more fuel1 than its (de facto) predecessor, the Boeing 767. That translates into an estimated 18 billion pounds of fuel saved by 2018.2 So how does a similar-size aircraft become so efficient?

A main factor lies in its new shell materials. Modern composites, ceramics, and extensive carbon fiber reinforcements comprise 50% of the 787’s frame, making the Dreamliner lighter and more durable than comparable aluminum planes3—and less prone to corrosion.4

“The design gives airlines more bang for their buck,” says Steve Johnston, Technical Service Engineer in the Chemours Application Development Group. “You can get more performance out of smaller, lighter machines. And the new materials require less maintenance. So the airplane spends more time in service, making money for the operator and hence reducing overall cost. That’s passed directly on to the passenger.”

The composite body panels that make all this possible have chemistry in their pedigree, of course. “Those composites are made at fairly high temperatures,” notes Bob Moffett, Senior Technology Consultant at Chemours. “The molding equipment involved can use Krytox™, which withstands the heat and provides the lubrication needed to separate parts from the mold.”

Looking ahead, Johnston sees Krytox™ helping make aircraft even more fuel efficient. “I can envision a change in engine design that would make them smaller, yet more powerful,” he says. “I know there’s been past work done to replace conventional engine oil with a Krytox™ PFPE-type oil, so the engines can run hotter.”

 


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An image of Katelyn Walck, North American Market Development Manager for Electronics and Communications, The Chemours Company.

Bob Moffett

Senior Technology Consultant

The safety of air travel has certainly been improved by chemistry.

Flying it safe

Flight attendant safety instructions typically include locations of the nearest emergency exits and how seats can be used as flotation devices. Behind the scenes, though, chemistry works to make sure emergency actions need never be taken.

 

An image of Jean-Marc Imbert, Global Product Manager, Viton™ Fluoroelastomers at The Chemours Company.

Jean-Marc Imbert

Global Product Manager, Viton™ Fluoroelastomers

With strong resistance to extreme heat and aggressive fuels, Viton™ helps prevent everything from fuel leaks to engine failure.

Besides the obvious safety networks—warning of everything from wind shear to mountains looming—chemistry operates covertly in some of the lesser-known systems. Deep in the engines themselves, Viton™ fluoroelastomers can be found in materials such as seals and O-rings. With strong resistance to extreme heat and aggressive fuels, Viton™ helps prevent everything from fuel leaks to engine failure, explains Jean-Marc Imbert, Global Product Manager at Chemours.

Even the emergency oxygen that flows when those masks drop has a Krytox™ component: used in that system, it’s oxygen-safe. Conventional lubricants in direct contact with liquid and gaseous oxygen may burst into flames, but Krytox™ doesn't.

Notes Moffett, “The safety of air travel has certainly been improved by chemistry.”

 

Playcation before vacation

The wonders of soaring above the clouds in a man-made cylinder do eventually fade. At that point, it’s all about the soothe: Is the engine noise obtrusive? Does the air feel stale? Is there a robust movie selection? Indeed, it’s comfort that helps make the skies friendly. “In cars, we have Krytox™ applications to address something called NVH—noise, vibration, and harshness,” Johnston notes. This is one of the unintended outcomes from progress. Cars are quieter than they were before. Better soundproofing and aerodynamics have muted the drone of the engine and the roar of the air. As a result, little squeaks and rattles that come from the exterior trim or interior fittings become bothersome. “For airplanes,” Johnston points out, “it's a similar quest.”

Then there’s the air quality. “The new generation of aircraft eschews bleed-engine air,” Johnston explains. While older planes pumped in compressed air from the engines, newer jets take a different route. Now, modern aircraft use separate compressor systems to improve air quality. Plus, the aforementioned composite shell allows planes to pump more moisture into the air, making for a less drying flight.

An image of Steve Johnston, Technical Service Engineer at The Chemours Company.

Steve Johnston

Technical Service Engineer

New materials require less maintenance. So the airplane spends more time in service, making money for the operator.

Finally, there’s the in-flight entertainment. Chemistry may not be the first thing that comes to mind for passengers looking to pass the time between Los Angeles and Sydney. But for every movie delivered to an airplane LCD screen, there’s a digital system. And that digital system only works because of semiconductors manufactured with the help of Teflon™ (this fluoroproduct helps chipmakers achieve higher yields by reducing contamination during manufacture).

The fact that passengers can enjoy a movie in comfort on a flight that’s remarkably safe just goes to show how far flying has come since the Wright brothers began testing bare-bones manned flights in 1900.

 

1 “The 787 Family: A Benchmark in Fuel Efficiency.” Boeing. www.boeing.com/commercial/787/by-design/#/benchmark-fuel-efficiency.
2 McIntosh, Andrew. “18 Billion Pounds of Fuel Saved: Boeing Releases New Dreamliner Data.” The Business Journals, Oct. 3, 2017. www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2017/10/03/18-billion-pounds-of-fuel-saved-boeing-releases.html.
3 “What Makes the Boeing 787 Dreamliner So Fuel Efficient?” AirlineGeeks.com, Jan. 29, 2018. www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSeRoCpu4eE.
4 Paur, Jason. “Boeing's 787 Is as Innovative Inside as Outside.” Wired, Conde Nast, Dec. 24, 2009. www.wired.com/2009/12/boeing-787-dreamliner-interior/.

An image of Randal Perry, Technical Fellow at The Chemours Company.

Our Expert Corner

Randal Perry explains how Nafion™ membranes help make our experiences while traveling more enjoyable.

More >



An image shows children enjoying an amusement park ride, one of many leisure activities chemistry makes possible.

We Put “Delight” Under a Microscope

Explore more topics and insights about how today’s advanced chemistry enables optimal leisure experiences.

Join us >



Discover more with Chemical & Engineering News and learn about the chemical and materials science that makes fun possible. >



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