Monday September 11, 2006

Dreamy Ride

A UD titanium expert received a first-hand look this summer at progress on Boeing's newest plane: the 787 Dreamliner. Danny Eylon sees a more affordable, longer-range, explosion-resistant, comfortable and safer plane.

A more affordable, longer-range, explosion-resistant, comfortable and safer plane that offers more international destinations from smaller domestic airports is what a University of Dayton materials engineer sees for future Boeing 787 Dreamliner passengers.

"I was nervous about this project before I got there. The largest plane currently made of mostly composite materials is a six-seater. Now, somebody is trying to jump three plane sizes," said Eylon, chair of UD's graduate materials engineering program. "I came back very reassured Boeing has the technology to do this."

Eylon, a titanium expert, spent two months at three different Boeing facilities as part of an information sharing program between Boeing and university experts in various aviation disciplines. Boeing only fills 12 spots a year for the Boeing Welliver Faculty Fellowship Program.

Composite materials and titanium alloys are among the strongest, lightest materials in existence. They allow planes to fly farther with more people, less fuel and better cabin air conditions than current aluminum aircraft supported by a rib-cage design, according to Eylon. Because composites and titanium don't corrode, Eylon said there is no fear of the metal fatigue that caused the roof to peel away from an Aloha Airlines jet over the Pacific Ocean in 1988.

"A forklift on the ground will not dent this plane. It would poke a hole through a plane with aluminum skin," said Eylon, who found that Boeing has been using some of his titanium research. "There is no research to back this up, but I would say composite material would help contain an explosion better, especially one like the fuel tank in TWA 800 (in 1996 off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.) Some explosion-proof cargo containers already are made out of composites."

Eylon added that it takes less time to assemble a composite plane and it will require less maintenance. Overall, the savings are passed to the consumer.

The Dreamliner, set to hit runways in 2008, is designed for nonstop, international flights that avoid the traditional hub system. Eylon said Honda's Ohio-based employees conceivably could fly nonstop from Columbus or Cincinnati to Tokyo rather than through Chicago or Atlanta.

It would be a long, but more comfortable flight, as the Dreamliner's composite body allows for better air pressure and humidity in the cabin.

"In a typical airplane, the pressure is equivalent to 8,000 feet above sea level (elevation of Aspen, Colo.) and the humidity is 5 percent (the driest desert)," Eylon said. "The Dreamliner's cabin will be pressured to 2,000 feet and 16 percent humidity."

Titanium is expensive to make even though it is the world's fourth-most abundant metal. It needs a lot of electricity and must be made in a vacuum, according to Eylon. However, titanium manufacturers continue to uncover additional resources. Eylon said Russia is emerging as a country with a large titanium capacity.

Eylon said he will bring his real-world experience into the classroom, where he is preparing the next generation of materials engineers.

Besides the airports, GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale, the landing gear division of Goodrich in Cleveland and RMI Titanium in Niles are Ohio companies that will benefit from the Dreamliner. Eylon also said much of the Dreamliner's technology was tried out in the military at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio.

UD ranks second nationally for industry- and government-funded materials research.

For more information, contact Danny Eylon at 937-229-2551.