Cleaner aviation depends on supplies of dirty materials

Farnborough _ Reuters photo by Luke MacGregor.jpg

This article is part of our special report Greening aviation.

SPECIAL REPORT / From the flight deck to the wheel brakes, new generations of aircraft that produce far less pollution increasingly rely on imported raw materials which are themselves dirty to produce. EURACTIV reports from the Farnborough International Airshow.

China and Russia are dominant suppliers of some forms of titanium – a lightweight metal used in airframes and parts – while China holds the lock on production of rare earth metals. Dependable supplies of these resources are vital as European and American airplane manufacturers juggle backlogged orders and address forecasts of exponential growth over 20 years.

“It’s an area that is going to increasingly become a challenge in the industry,” said Dr Andy Jefferson, programme director at the industry-financed Sustainable Aviation research organisation in the United Kingdom.

“We need to take the lead in developing innovation in a sustainable way,” he said on the sidelines of the Farnborough International Airshow in England.

Titanium is an ideal metal for airplane parts and frames because it is lighter and stronger than aluminium, and is highly heat resistant. Some of the 17 so-called rare earth elements and metals are used in computers, aircraft parts and guidance technology.

Sustainability of supplies?

But supplies are far from guaranteed, independent analysts say, especially as China and Russia reputedly exercise selective trade practices and become potential competitors to the leading European and American aircraft manufacturers.

Last year, as a trade row between the European Union and China heated up over rare earth elements, the consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers produced a survey showing widespread concern among business leaders about the potential for scarce supplies of essential manufacturing components.

"Put simply, many businesses now recognise that we are living beyond the planet's means,” Malcolm Preston, who heads the global sustainability for the PriceWaterhouseCoopers, said when the survey results were released in December.

“New business models will be fundamental to the ability to respond appropriately to the risks and opportunities posed by the scarcity of minerals and metals."

Figures from the US Federal Aviation Administration show that demand for one rare earth element used in semiconductors and the aerospace industry – halnium – is nearly exceeding world supplies.

The lightweight beryllium metal used in brake parts and window frames for military and civilian aircraft is on the PriceWaterhouseCoopers ‘critical list’.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has issued its own warning that Europe’s climate goals are threatened by looming shortages of metals that are in high demand and dominated by a single supplier – China.

In two recent cases, the World Trade Organisation told China to ease its export restrictions on metals important to energy, transport and electronics manufacturing. China has claimed its restrictions were partly aimed at limiting environmental damage from mining and processing. But the EU, United States and Japan maintain that Beijing was improperly subsidising domestic prices of rare earth metals and inflating export prices.

China supplies nearly all the world’s 17 rare earth elements and metals.

There are also concerns about titanium sourcing. In Washington, a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, an independent arm of Congress, cites foreign dominance of the world titanium market as a potential risk to America’s national security.

China and Russia are two of the leading producers of titanium sponge, a raw form of the metal, according to the US Geological Survey. Japan, the United States and Ukraine are also leading producers.

In the global south, analysts fear that conflicts between the government and rebels in eastern Congo could disrupt shortages of tantalum and other important minerals used in computers.

Reliable supplies so far

Aviation industry officials at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, where the greenest passenger aircraft ever built were on show, were hesitant to speak on-the-record about possible threats to the supply of vital raw materials, or about potential competition from emerging aircraft competitors in both Russia and China.

Ray Conner, the new president of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, told journalists that his company had a successful partnership with a titanium supplier in Russia. The world’s leading passenger aircraft-maker recently sealed a long-term contract with Russia’s VSMPO-AVISMA, which supplies more than half of Boeing’s titanium needs.

Airbus also has a deal with VSMPO-AVISMA to provide some 60% of the European company’s titanium needs.

Metals like titanium and the rare earths are, from a geological point of view, not rare and were once mined in Europe. But as Sustainable Aviation’s Andy Jefferson notes, mining and production is labour intensive and comes with high environmental costs, which means that operations have gradually shifted to countries with lower salaries and regulatory hurdles.

Competition in the air, too

Besides being leading suppliers of raw materials, the Russian and Chinese are also increasingly competitive in an aviation industry long dominated by the Europeans and Americans.

Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation expected to sign off on orders from Asian customers for its Sukhoi Superjet at Farnborough, the company’s chief executive, Mikhail Pogosyan, told a news conference. The company is also luring customers in the Confederation of Independent States that had previously turned to Western companies to replace rickety fleets of Soviet passenger liners.

The Superjet 100 is the first passenger plane manufactured in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, though it has been marred by safety concerns since a crash during a demonstration flight in Indonesia in May killed all 45 people on board.

United is also developing longer-haul MS-21 jetliners that are expected to be operational by 2016, and company representatives say they will be 15% more fuel efficient than comparable aircraft flown today.

Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, launched in 2008, used Farnborough to show off its ARJ21 regional aircraft and its larger C919, the country’s first domestic singe-aisle passenger liner.

Fresh competition could spell trouble for Airbus and Boeing – especially in the rapidly growing single-aisle markets dominated by the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737.

Still, Randy Tinseth, Boeing commercial division vice president for marketing, said at the roll-out of the company’s annual forecast in Brussels last week, that there is room for competition. Boeing estimates that the world will need 34,000 new aircraft by 2031 and the once-unchallenged European and American companies are now struggling to meet existing demand.

The European Commission has already identified many so-called rare-earth minerals as well as metals like cobalt in its lists of 14 economically vital raw materials that are prone to supply disruption. The JRC study is part of the Commission’s examination of raw material needs.

Europe depends on imports for nearly all of its rare-earth metals. Though many are in abundant supply on the planet, the metals are often dispersed or difficult to access, and despite their importance to green energy, require intensive mining and processing. China controls more than 90% of the market.

  • Mid-2012: The European Commission's Joint Research Centre will examine other sectors that use rare-earth metals.
  • Early 2013: JRC report to look into rare-earth life cycle assessment, mining and costs.

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