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What are you made of? Composites central to fuel reduction

Posting in Sustainability

Weight reductions and durability offer two compelling reasons for sustainability executives to consider composite materials alternatives.

Last month, ITT scored a deal to more than double the size of its Utah facility for composites engineering and manufacturing. The move comes as more businesses -- including the likes of UPS -- explore the use of composites, a lightweight alternative to metals and other materials, most notably in the transportation sector.

"Composites are an enabler," said Mike Therson, director of composite systems for ITT and the director of the Utah facility. "I don't want to imply that composite is a panacea for all metals, but it is getting much more attention."

ITT's Utah 500,000-square foot manufacturing expansion, for example, is directly related to its ability to make composite aircraft structure components for both military and commercial aircraft, Therson said.

For example, ITT produces several major components for the CH-53K helicopter from Sikorsky Aircraft. Using composites will help reduce the maintenance costs for the helicopters, which are used by the U.S. Marine Corps, by up to 50 percent, Therson said. It also makes more than 250 composite parts for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Another key example: Up to 50 percent of the materials in the much-anticipated Boeing Dreamliner-787 are composites, Therson said.

Therson said weight has been the predominant reason that companies have gravitated toward composites over the years, particularly for aircraft. For certain applications, a reduction of 1 pound could mean 500 gallons of fuel savings per year. With fuel costs rising and the push on to make fleets more efficient, airline and trucking companies are busy exploring many materials alternatives.

Another consideration, however, is sustainability: As in, certain composites can stand up to certain environmental conditions better than metals. They are not subject to corrosion, as one example, which means they might perform better in hot, wet geographies than other materials.

"Composites can stand up to this," Therson said.

Over the next 15 years, ITT expects to add approximately 2,700 full-time jobs to its Utah facility, as it takes on a 10 percent growth in production. The new section of the plant itself will be up and running in April 2012, although it will take 18 months to 24 months to get all the equipment in place.

How quickly are companies adopting composites?

The UPS composite car prototype is being tested in five locations throughout 2011.

As I was considering this post, I received a completely unrelated news tidbits related to companies and composites and the testing thereof:

It is this: UPS has created a composite vehicle with partners Utilimaster and Isuzu called the CV-23 Prototype. The 150-horsepower truck (pictured) uses a four-cylinder diesel engine, which is smaller than the delivery company's traditional engines. It has slightly less cargo space -- 630 cubic foot as opposed to 700 cubic feet -- and weighs approximately 1,000 pounds less.

The vehicle promises a 40 percent improvement in fuel efficiency compared with the P70 diesel package cars. It will be tested in five "extreme" locations throughout 2011, including Lincoln, Neb.; Albany, N.Y.; Tucson, Ariz.; Flint, Mich.; and Roswell, Ga.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure