Making High-Tech Aircraft Parts with... Cork
Photo: Wikipedia, GFDL
Is Cork About to Take Off?
Portugal produces a lot of cork: At about 157,000 tonnes/year, it grow over half of the total world supply. Since demand for cork is going down in the wine industry (because of metal screwtops and plastic stoppers), Portugese engineers are looking for other uses for the natural material. One promising - and perhaps unexpected - potential use is in the aviation sector.
Photo: Wikipedia, CC
The Aerocork partners aim to replace light porous plastic PVC with cork composite in the fuselage, wings and flaps of light aircraft, where it is coated with carbon fiber sheets. [...] "We know that after a few years PVC will no longer be used, certainly by us and most likely by others in the industry. It is a nightmare in terms of ecological aspects," Sence said. "Our idea is to sell cork-carbon parts to other firms in the future."
Far from being a return to the wood-and-canvas planes from the early aviation history, the cork-carbon combination is not only light but possesses fire retardant properties. Shredded cork is already used in the thermal protection coating on the Space Shuttle's external fuel tank.
In nature, the unique cellular bark protects cork oaks from frequent forest fires.
It remains to be seen if this cork-carbon composite will meet the needs of plane-makers, but if it does, it would have a dual benefit: Greener than PVC and other plastics that are currently used, and it would also help protect the vast cork forests of Portugal (as long as sustainable harvesting practices are used, of course). The World Wildlife Fund warns that if cork is no longer used by industry, there is a risk of desertification in the western Mediterranean areas where cork is grown.
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