A team at the Northern Irish base of Canadian aerospace company Bombardier has won a prestigious engineering award for a composite wing that reduces the environmental footprint of commercial jets.
The Belfast-based engineers won the 2019 MacRobert Award for the wing that is 10 per cent lighter than standard metal equivalents, which reduces fuel burn and CO2 emissions. It is used by Airbus, the European aeroplane maker.
The award comes as airlines face increasing pressure to reduce their emissions, which increased by 3 per cent to 136m tonnes between 2014 and 2017, according to the European Aviation Environmental Report.
“Other companies like Airbus and Boeing are making composite wings but this is a novel approach that allows for complex shapes to be made in a single piece,” said Ric Parker, former director of research and technology at Rolls-Royce, and one of the award’s judges. “It’s a great example of different threads of engineering coming together really nicely.”
The wing, first used in 2013, is made using a low energy and resource-light process called resin transfer infusion, in which dry fabric moulds are impregnated with liquid resin and then set into shape using heat and pressure.
As well as the product’s green credentials, Mr Parker highlighted the benefit that the engineering plant had on employment in Northern Ireland, building on a heritage of aviation in the region that goes back over a century.
The invention was fruit of the largest ever single inward investment in Northern Ireland, totalling £520m, and has benefited more than 200 suppliers across the UK.
The win comes two months after Bombardier announced that it planned to sell its Northern Irish business, which makes wings and fuselages for aircraft including the Airbus A220. Potential buyers include Spanish aircraft parts maker Aernnova, and there has also been speculation around interest from aerospace companies GKN in the UK and AeroSystems in the US.
“The award . . . is an independent testament that this is world class technology that these companies could be buying,” said Mr Parker.
Bombardier said earlier this month that the Northern Ireland business, which employs 3,600 people, had returned to an operating profit of $4.9m in 2018, recovering from a $33.8m loss in 2017. However, a series of exceptional costs still resulted in a pre-tax loss of $41.5m for 2018.
The MacRobert Award, the UK’s longest running engineering prize dating back to 1969, is awarded by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The winning team shares a £50,000 cash prize.
Former winners include Freeman, Fox and Partners for the Severn Bridge in the award’s inaugural year, the CT scanner in 1972, and a credit card-sized computer called the Raspberry Pi in 2017.