EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for making sure the planes Americans fly in are safe.
That job got more complicated about five years ago, when jet manufacturers started building planes differently than they ever had before, with composite materials instead of aluminum.
On Tuesday, the FAA unveiled its latest response to those innovations, opening a new Structures and Materials Laboratory on the sprawling grounds of the agency’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.
Edward Weinstein, who oversees that laboratory among his FAA duties, said its main purpose is to test over time the materials in these new-generation jets, first introduced by Boeing in 2011 with its 787 fleet, and later by Airbus. The composites are made from carbon fibers, and they’re far lighter and can be stronger than aluminum. But the agency has to test them to be sure.
“Now we know there are lots of things we don’t know,” Weinstein said after a ceremony formally opening a building that, at 10,000 square feet with a 32-foot ceiling, may look more like an airplane hangar than a laboratory. Agency officials say the building cost $2 million.
Weinstein estimated the carbon composites can be 20 percent to 25 percent lighter than aluminum, “which is huge,” he said — adding that in aviation, “we’re usually looking at 1 percent or 2 percent (improvements), anything we can gain at all.”
The reduced weight makes planes use less fuel, which makes them cheaper and cuts down on their environmental impact. So people in the aviation industry aren’t the only ones excited about the possibilities.
“We know this is coming,” Weinstein said. “But we can’t just rubber-stamp everything, and we can’t just say no.”
So they test.
David Westlund, a general engineer for the agency, explained the experiments now under way on a 30-foot-long rudder donated to the FAA by Boeing. The piece is made of old-fashioned aluminum, but Westlund said it has been repaired using composites, and he’s testing to see how those fixes have held up under the stress of flying and exposure to the elements.
“There are physical tests, chemical tests, structural tests,” he said, adding later that some of the experiments examine whether “the chemicals have changed, if the surface chemistry has changed.”
And as the new planes fly and age, “Then we ... also want to evaluate composite (repairs) on composites,” Westlund added.
In another section of the lab, aerospace engineer Zhi-Ming Chen gave examples of tests he’s doing with an electron microscope — an instrument that makes Weinstein, the manager, marvel. He says an electron microscope used to sell for $12 million, now his lab has “a desktop model that’s affordable.”
Chen was showing detailed images from that microscope on a standard desktop computer screen, including a section of carbon fiber he had burned at about 800 degrees — to simulate a “post-crash fire scenario,” he said. “The purpose is to detect how much evidence I would have left after a fire.”
Next to that he had an image that could have been a piece of abstract art. But when he pulled the item that made it out of the microscope, it was a small piece of aluminum from an aircraft — aluminum that had been mechanically stretched about 50,000 times, Chen said.
The new lab has the capacity to do that easily, Weinstein said. At any given time, he expects anywhere from four to 16 workers to be in the lab performing a variety of experiments.
“We want to make sure we understand as much with the new materials as we did with the old stuff,” he said.