Japanese scientists discuss development of innovative aircraft materials
May 09, 2018
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – Japan has not been a player in the civil aviation industry for decades, but it plans to make a strong comeback to this market, which is dominated by the United States and Europe, by developing innovative structural materials that contribute to a reduction in energy consumption and help cut carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of aircraft fuel.
Its goal is to ensure that the engine components and fuselages of a sizable proportion of the small and medium aircraft produced worldwide after 2030 use materials developed by Japanese firms.
“Aircraft manufacturing has been absent from the Japanese economy since the end of the Second World War. We’re trying to recoup our market share and catch up with the US,” said Masahiro Takemura, director of the Structural Materials for Innovation (SM4I) Program run by Japan Science & Technology Agency (JST), during an event entitled “Japan’s science and technology policy – toward innovation”, held on March 29, 2018, in São Paulo, Brazil, with FAPESP’s support.
One of the goals of the SM4I program is to improve aircraft energy efficiency by using lighter and more heat-resistant structural materials. Participants in the program include 25 Japanese firms, such as Mitsubishi and Subaru, as well as 36 universities and ten research institutions.
“Our research focuses on polymers, including carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRPs), heat-resistant alloys, intermetallic compounds, ceramic matrix composites, and materials integration,” Takemura said.
With regard to polymers and CFRPs, Japanese researchers aim to develop thermoplastic polymer composites with high impact resistance and high heat resistance for use in key aircraft structural components such as the tail and wings, as well as in engine parts.
In heat-resistant alloys, the aim is to develop innovative technology for forging alloys of titanium and nickel, the main materials used in aircraft engines and power generating turbines. “We plan to develop a new forging process that lowers the cost of these metal alloys while at the same time maintaining their quality,” Takemura said.
In ceramic matrix composites, one of the goals is to develop barrier coating technology for surface protection, comprising light ceramic components capable of withstanding high-temperature oxidation and water vapor during flight.
“Development of this barrier coating technology is vital to the application of the ceramic components and will contribute significantly to improved fuel consumption and reduced carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft engines,” Takemura said.
In materials integration, the idea is to create technologies capable of predicting durability and performance on the basis of theoretical data, experiments and computer simulations in order to increase Japan’s competitiveness in the materials segment.
This segment is considered strategic for Japan and accounts for 20% of Japanese exports. Japan produces 70% of the carbon fiber consumed worldwide. “We aim to increase Japan’s share of the global materials market by developing novel structural materials,” Takemura said.
Composites and nanotechnology
According to data presented by Eriko Kishida, a science and technology expert in the International Science Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan slipped from second to third place among the countries that do the most materials research in the period 2009-11 compared with the period 1999-2001. Similar downgrades occurred in chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, and life sciences.
“Unfortunately, Japan’s competitiveness in research is declining,” Kishida said. “One of the reasons is the strong growth in Chinese research, which is reflected by international rankings.”
Japan’s industrial competitiveness against the US and Europe in areas such as nanotechnology and materials has also fallen, he added. The SM4I program was launched in 2014 with the aim of recouping the country’s market share in these areas.
“Between 1995 and 2000, Japanese investment in materials research and development focused on nanomaterials. US investment in nanotechnology was substantial during this period,” Takemura said. Nanomaterials contain nanoparticles smaller than 100 nanometers in at least one dimension. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
According to Takemura, in recent years, the focus of Japan’s R&D investments has returned to innovative structural materials with high mechanical strength and resistance to extreme heat, such as composites.
Nanotechnology is still on Japanese researchers’ radar, however. It is also a key focus for Brazil’s Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials (CDFM), one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP. CDMF is hosted by the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).
CDMF’s researchers have led the field in developing nanocomposites, materials that combine functionalized nanoparticles and polymers.
“Our priority is obtaining these nanoparticles and converting them into products that create wealth,” said Elson Longo, a professor at UFSCar and CDMF’s executive director, in his presentation to the event.
Other participants in the event included Carlos Américo Pacheco, CEO of FAPESP; Yasushi Noguchi, Japanese Consul General in São Paulo; and Angela Hirata, President of Japan House São Paulo.
Pacheco recalled that FAPESP has cooperation agreements with JST and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), as well as three leading universities: Hiroshima University, the University of Tokyo, and the University of Tsukuba.
“FAPESP works very hard at international cooperation, which is a key item on the science and technology agenda of most countries because of its significant effects on the quality of the science they produce,” Pacheco said.
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