HELAC’s Composite reprocessing: selective water cutting and resistive welding

These days, metal is the main component of aircraft parts but, for the last few years, the aeronautical industry has been incorporating new materials, such as thermoset compounds. They require a recycling system that allows the extraction of the reusable components (carbon fiber), to produce less waste of this composite material, which is hardly recyclable until now. HELACS offers a technological solution to recycle both thermoset materials and thermoplastics, which are currently booming and are considered to be the materials of the coming future for aircrafts.

These days, metal is the main component of aircraft parts but, for the last few years, the aeronautical industry has been incorporating new materials, such as thermoset compounds. They require a recycling system that allows the extraction of the reusable components (carbon fiber), to produce less waste of this composite material, which is hardly recyclable until now. HELACS offers a technological solution to recycle both thermoset materials and thermoplastics, which are currently booming and are considered to be the materials of the coming future for aircrafts.

To that effect, HELACS proposes a dismantling process based on a selective cutting system by high pressure water (more than 4000 bars) that will allow the pieces composed of a thermoset matrix (carbon fiber + epoxy resin) to be cut into pieces. Afterwards, those pieces will undergo a pyrolysis process (heating in the absence of oxygen) by which the matrix will be charred and the carbon fiber which resists the chemical decomposition will be reused.

Beyond the thermoset composite material, there are advanced trials with thermoplastic-based composites that aim to become the key component of the aeronautical parts of the next generation of aircrafts. With the focus on these new materials, HELACS also incorporates a second resistive welding reprocessing technology. This system makes use of an extremely fine resistive mesh (35 µm) installed during assembly at the junction interfaces between panels. This mesh will help at the disassembly stage to detach the panels, by passing an electric current through this element. Acting as an electrical resistance, this will heat up melting the matrix and allowing the separation mentioned.

Thanks to the revolutionary methodologies that the HELACS Project brings up, the aeronautical industry will be able to find an innovative technological system for dismantling and maintenance of aircrafts in order to give new life to materials, as well as developments and innovations that will be transferable to other industries.

Latest News HELACS

  • For aircrafts that are no longer in service, the owner considers the trade-off between direct resale and disassemble & recycled. Besides that, HELACS project (Holistic processes for the cost-effective and sustainable management of End of Life of Aircraft Composite Structures) is focused on the study of the second one of these options.

  • You can now download the official HELACS project brochure. A project comes to transform the dismantling process of the aircraft of the future. HELACS employs novel robotics to recycle composite materials of large components. The HELACS process is based on the application of high water pressure that will selectively chop the thermoset parts into a dimension suitable for recycling. In addition, the pyrolysis process is used for the carbonization of the thermoset matrix to reuse the carbon fibers that overcome this chemical decomposition.

  • AITIIP Technology Centre leads HELACS, a European project which aims to develop a dual methodology of controlled comprehensive dismantling in order to make possible the classification, recycling and reuse of aircraft parts made of thermoset and thermoplastic composites that have reached their end of life. Annually, the aeronautical industry is depositing more than 40,000 tons of end-of-life composite material waste in landfills. Thanks to the recovery of materials, the technology proposed by HELACS will benefit the change towards an energy efficiency model.

This project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 101007871
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