My inner geek comes out at surprising times. I recently found myself on a commercial flight going to Houston for a panel discussion on shale development and how it is changing American manufacturing. We are in the beginning phases of a manufacturing renaissance in the United States and, as I was thinking about the panel discussion, I began to look around the airplane to see what materials could have been derived from petrochemicals.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the interiors of modern airplanes are mostly plastic, and those plastics are made using petrochemical building blocks, such as ethylene, propylene and benzene. For example, the overhead stowage bins and sidewall panels are made from fiber-reinforced plastic in a honeycomb pattern with a sheet of phenolic resin facing. The honeycomb configuration and fiber reinforcement give the aramid plastic high strength, durability and fire resistance, while providing lighter weight and easy cleaning.
Even the airplane seats have evolved. They used to be a simple polyurethane foam cushion covered by a fabric for fire resistance, all under a wool/polyester blend seat cover. Now seats use a combination of polyurethane and polychloroprene, which preserves fire resistance and comfort, but reduces overall seat weight.
Even looking at the floor in the galley reveals materials made from petrochemical building blocks. The galley flooring is typically polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is modified to withstand harsh environments and still provide an easy cleaning surface. From what I’ve been reading, reinforced, high-tech plastics are even being tested for futuristic wing designs and other exterior applications.
So how did I get from shale development to aircraft interiors? Shale development is providing an abundance of raw materials used to make petrochemicals. Our industry is investing over 100 billion dollars in new production facilities to take advantage of the oil, gas and gas liquids coming out of the ground.
This manufacturing resurgence is not going to happen overnight, however. A whole slew of other processing and production facilities will be built over the next few years that use petrochemicals as their raw materials. That’s how the manufacturing supply chain works. The first step is the extraction of natural resources like oil and gas, then processing it to separate out the raw materials to make petrochemicals, then using the petrochemicals to make useful stuff like plastic resin, then taking the resin and converting it into a high-tech plastic, then molding that plastic, then taking those parts and putting them all together…I think you get the idea. Manufacturing is coming back to America.