National Manufacturing Institute Scotland

Recycling aeroplanes and turning them into drinks cans: the role of composites in the journey towards net-zero

Wind turbine blade in lightweight manufacturing centre

This National Composites Week, we're shining a spotlight on The Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC) – one of our specialist technology centres.

The LMC works with and develops novel lightweight solutions to help manufacturing businesses face and overcome the challenges of the modern-day world.

As we approach COP26, the challenge of becoming more sustainable as a society is more important than ever – and this includes the manufacturing industry, which is responsible for more than one-quarter of global CO2 emissions as of 2020.

How can manufacturers become more sustainable? Lighter weight products and materials that are less energy consuming to produce will play a considerable part as businesses explore how to meet net-zero carbon reduction targets.

Below we explore some of the groundbreaking work being carried out at the LMC that aims to change the way things are made, with a focus on sustainable composite materials.

What are composites and why do we need them?

First, let's take a quick look at why composites are so important within manufacturing.

Composites are materials that typically have higher strength to weight ratios than metals. They are formed by combining natural or manufactured elements with differing physical or chemical properties.

The component materials don't entirely blend or lose their own identities; instead, they merge and offer mutually beneficial characteristics.

Composites offer opportunities to manufacture greater performance items - such as larger wind turbine blades to generate more renewable energy. In addition, their durability and corrosion-free properties can lead to a considerable extension of certain product life cycles.

ACT Blade

A new technology, developed by Edinburgh-based ACT Blade in collaboration with the LMC, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield, and the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (OREC) in Blyth, aims to replace the heavier glass fibre design traditionally used for wind turbine blades with a lighter composite, wrapped in a sail-like textile shell. 

Engineers at the LMC applied their lightweighting expertise and composites capabilities to the ACT Blade concept, helping the team design, prototype, and ultimately manufacture parts of the innovative technologies that will allow for more energy generation whilst lessening the risk of corrosion and decay.

The blades are currently in situ on a wind farm in East Kilbride, where during the initial two days of operation, they generated a whopping 350KWh - enough to power one large family home for two months.


Carbon fibre is a remarkable substance that has become vital in producing a whole range of products where mechanical performance and weight reduction are essential requirements. It is versatile with impressive applications, from spaceships to golf clubs and jumbo jets to family hatchbacks.

However, carbon fibre production requires significant amounts of fossil fuels and energy.

FutureFibre is a collaborative research and development project that combines the experience of academics and industry professionals to provide the environment, infrastructure and resources to delve deeper into alternatives to the traditional fibre manufacturing process.

The aim is to identify a new material with all the unique properties of carbon but significantly less environmental impact.

Sustainable Composites

All the use of carbon fibre increases, so do the requirements for manufacturers to ensure the recyclability of their products. Using car production as an example, at least 95% of a new vehicle, by weight, needs to be recycled at the end of life. Many carmakers could find it difficult to hit these targets without an effective solution for reusing carbon fibre.

As part of the Sustainable Composites project at the LMC, the team plans to monitor the full impact of the recycling process. Using life cycle analysis and cost modelling related to specific industrial requirements, the hope is to establish a closed-loop system for carbon fibre that will see the material recycled and reused rather than discarded. 

Reconfigurable Pilot Line

As all manufacturers know, the most common point of failure in developing any new product is the aptly named "valley of death". This is the point at which risks and costs spike, as a greater level of investment is required to take a concept from a lab-scale prototype to fully-fledged pilot-scale production. Pilot lines link the research and development phase to widescale commercialisation yet can be costly and challenging to assemble and alter.

The LMC plans to develop a reconfigurable pilot line (RPL) to provide a more flexible alternative to the traditional fixed pilot line method. Rather than working from a pilot line that can only be used for one project or a single component, the RPL will allow one pre-assembled line for several different production types.

The aim is to make composite manufacturing more accessible and stimulate the growth of the supply chain within Scotland and the wider UK. As we've seen during the pandemic, manufacturers could be making aerospace parts one day and the next day making respirators.

The RPL will bring down the costs and associated risks of investing in new materials and manufacturing technologies and processes when making new products.

Stay tuned for more

These projects showcase just a flavour of what's happening at the LMC as positive strides are made towards manufacturing a better and more sustainable future for us all.

Professor Iain Bomphray, Director, LMC, told us:

Industries such as renewables need cheaper carbon composite materials, preferably from renewable sources, and this is something we're exploring at the LMC.

We need coherent strategies to reclaim and reformat the composite materials used in their construction to enable them to be used again in other products – like recycling aeroplanes and turning them into drinks cans.

While industry is seeking solutions to reduce the costs of energy, the implementation can be slow. Smaller companies have their part to play too, especially if they can access the right support and funding.

Every so often, a small company with a big idea can make an enormous difference. At the LMC, we are developing strategies to support both SMEs and larger organisations alike through affordable, translational research and development.

Latest news from across the NMIS Group