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Carbon-Fiber “Dreamliner” Set to Make First Commercial Flight September 27

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A so-called “Dreamliner” is set to finally become a reality when All Nippon Airways (ANA) flies its brand new Boeing 787 out of Paine Field in Everett, Wash., on Tuesday. After a three-year delay the plane becomes the first commercial aircraft with a shell made primarily of carbon fiber, a material that promises 20 percent fuel savings for airlines while offering several improvements in passenger comfort.

The 787 Dreamliner is a midsize aircraft capable of flying longer nonstop routes with cleaner, more humid cabin air pressurized to make passengers feel as though they are at 1,800 meters, instead of the usual 2,400 meters. Such modifications are made possible by the use of carbon fiber, which is stronger and rust-resistant compared with the typical aluminum fuselage. This strength also enables Boeing to make the aircraft with larger windows that feature electrochromic shading that automatically darkens the glass in bright sunlight.

Despite being the fastest-selling wide-body airliner in history, with 677 orders by July 2007, the Dreamliner suffered through production, labor and design problems that delayed its debut. By midway through this year, airlines had ordered 827 Dreamliners even though not a single 787 had flown commercially. In 2004 ANA ordered 50 Dreamliners (called 7E7s at the time) in a deal worth about $6 billion. Other major Dreamliner buyers include British Airways and Japan Airlines Corp.

Some customers, however, might soon be backing out of purchase agreements due to financial troubles. Air India had been re-considering the purchase of 27 Dreamliners in June, a month before the airline’s July 31 test flight was cut short due to a failed sensor. The 787, which can seat up to 290 passengers, costs between $185 million and $218 million per plane.

ANA plans to begin flying the Dreamliner from Tokyo to Okayama-Hiroshima on November 11, followed by the first international route, from Tokyo to Frankfurt, starting in January, according to CBS News. United Continental Holdings Inc., the first U.S. customer, expects to receive its first 787s next year and plans to use them for routes between Houston and Auckland, New Zealand, and Houston and Lagos, Nigeria.

The Dreamliner’s primary competition is Airbus’s A350, which likewise features large carbon fiber panels as part of its main fuselage. The A350 has also seen production delays, however, and won’t be available until at least mid-2013. These issues haven’t deterred Air France-KLM Group, Europe’s biggest airline, from planning to order 25 Airbus SAS A350s in addition to an equal number of Dreamliners for a total of about $12 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Image courtesy of Boeing

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. live.the.future 7:49 pm 09/26/2011

    “Such modifications are made possible by the use of carbon fiber, which is stronger and rust-resistant compared with the typical aluminum fuselage.”

    Pardon my metallurgical ignorance, but aluminum rusts?

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  2. 2. Mackeyorama 6:17 am 09/27/2011

    Aluminium has a reputation for not rusting but it does oxidise on the surface. The surface oxidation forms a barrier that tends to protect the aluminium from rusting further. You have noticed polished aluminium losses its sheen. In comparison epoxies used in composites are typically more resilient to corrosion.

    I am curious how they intend to perform maintenance on these aircraft after the inevitable bird strikes and wear and tear. Will a crack require an entire new wing or aircraft section?

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  3. 3. David Marjanović 9:52 am 09/27/2011

    I am curious how they intend to perform maintenance on these aircraft after the inevitable bird strikes and wear and tear. Will a crack require an entire new wing or aircraft section?

    Maybe, but there’ll be fewer cracks, because “carbon fiber [...] is stronger [...] compared with the typical aluminum fuselage”.

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  4. 4. rlvice 12:58 am 10/1/2011

    If my understanding is correct, the most common structural failures in an aluminum fuselage actually start at the transition points from aluminum to steel. These occur at almost all fuselage penetrations, as well as at the reinforcing rings and various attachment points for equipment, and usually start as radial cracks away from rivet or screw holes. I would suppose the root cause has something to do with the bimetallic electro-chemistry, but I’m just guessing at that. I do know these locations are difficult to access and tend to accumulate moisture and environmental components of many types.

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