Promoted Content: The safe disposal of products should be part of their design, explains Dan Rust, head of design at Cobalt Aerospace (part of IFPL Group)
It’s no secret that waste is a challenge for the aviation industry. Whether maintenance related, such as disposal of obsolete aircraft and parts, or on-board waste created by passengers, there are a whole host of issues operators need to address daily to ensure a fleet meets sustainability targets.
Some of the obstacles which operators currently face are the product of progress. Aircraft that were manufactured a significant amount of time ago have now aged and are being decommissioned, ready to be replaced by newer, more efficient designs. These older models were not necessarily created with sustainability in mind meaning that, for example, they may have been built with materials which are hazardous or cannot be easily recycled. The same can be said for many other parts of older cabins; interior products were not always designed to be disposed of in a way that minimises the impact on our planet.
But we know better now. Thinking about the end of a product’s life during the design process may sound like a strange concept but, for both designers and operators, crucial practicalities such as easy and safe disposal must be a consideration. In the conversation around sustainability, building these practicalities into a design is perhaps of equal importance to ensuring a product is long-lived.
One very real example of how the aviation industry is continuing to be encouraged to confront issues around safe and sustainable disposal of waste products is the European Union’s recent ban on fluorescent lighting.
Fluorescent lighting has been a staple in aircraft interiors for decades. However, the environmental implications of using fluorescent tubes – particularly in the context of commercial aviation – have become increasingly concerning.
Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) imposed a ban on the sale, supply and import of fluorescent lamps into the region. The decision, rooted in justifiable environmental concerns, ends previous exemptions for the use of the toxin mercury in lighting units. This landmark part of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive now forces European aircraft operators still using fluorescent lighting to closely examine future plans for their cabins, with operators in other regions wise to do the same.
As well as housing mercury – a toxic chemical which threatens environmental risk in the case of damage or disposal – fluorescent lights sometimes contain other hazardous materials such as phosphor coatings, which increase disposal challenges for operators. Safe handling and careful discarding or recycling (where possible) are essential to prevent these materials from entering and damaging our ecosystems; no easy feat for maintenance teams working with restricted time and resources. Mercury is not only a risk to the environment, as exposure can also cause serious health problems. The World Health Organisation lists mercury as one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern and has recommended the phasing out of non-essential mercury-containing products like fluorescent lamps for some time.
And it’s not just the challenges around decommissioning fluorescent tubes safely which make the units decidedly environmentally unfriendly. Fluorescent systems have a much shorter lifespan than the far more efficient LED interior lighting products available today. Our own LED lighting product, Cobalt Spectrum, is one such example. Our system has been flying for nearly a decade and, in that time, we’ve experienced first-hand the efficiencies that LED systems offer over fluorescent units (it’s one of the reasons we developed Cobalt Spectrum in the first place!)
Perhaps the most obvious advantages of using LED over fluorescent bulbs are their physical attributes: they are smaller and far lighter. This not only helps operators to save on the total weight of the aircraft, but also to burn less fuel, which makes for a more economical and sustainable flight. LEDs produce much less heat than fluorescent lights, making them far more efficient. On-board, LED units convert more energy into visible light than flurorescent systems, and as a result emit less heat, thus making better use of the energy they are being supplied with and using less power to illuminate an aircraft interior.
LEDs also contain no hazardous materials, making them much easier to recycle at the end of their long lives. Operators should look to install an LED lighting system which capitalises on the bulbs’ discrete size and weight with a tube design that makes the most of lightweight, yet durable material choices. We achieved this by leveraging our team’s Formula 1 engineering experience and expert knowledge of aerospace materials, creating a one-piece polycarbonate shell that is both tough and light. This design saves operators significant amounts of weight on-board: for example, A380 operators can save a staggering 250kg by replacing a fluorescent lighting system with Cobalt Spectrum.
Cobalt Spectrum also includes our unique Age Correction Technology. This technology uses our smart algorithms to bring all the LED bulbs in a system to the same colour temperature and luminosity, regardless of an individual bulb’s provenance. This means that the aircraft interior remains looking uniform and beautifully lit throughout the system’s life. Furthermore, Cobalt Spectrum tubes have a Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) of over 500,000 hours, which far exceeds traditional fluorescent tube obsolescence and ensures fewer light units are used and disposed of over an aircraft’s time in service, generating far less waste.
In general, retrofit solutions are an excellent way to sustainably revamp an existing aircraft whilst minimising the resources used. For these solutions to be a legitimate option for operators, particularly airlines, they need to be easy and quick to install. We tackled this by making our system a true drop-in, plug and play product: operators need only remove the existing lighting units and swap them with our LED units. There is no change to the aircraft wiring, meaning a short installation time and no training required for cabin crew to use the system effectively.
The European Union’s RoHS directive cites the wide availability of “safe, mercury-free alternatives”, such as LED systems, as a factor in the decision to ban fluorescent lamps for members of the European Union (the UK also enforced the directive this year). With the negative environmental and health effects of mercury well documented, alongside the clear benefits of LED lighting systems, it is essential that operators in all regions now look to the future and plan the change to illuminating their aircraft interiors with LED.