At a center like Evergreen, it typically takes about a month to dismantle a Boeing 747. Workers first have to park the aircraft on a cement slab to keep hydraulic fluids and other toxic substances from seeping into the soil. Then, Federal Aviation Administration-certified airframe and engine mechanics go through it and remove every usable part: “the wings, flaps, ailerons—everything that can be taken off,” says Toomey. Those items, along with the avionics, are tagged with their serial numbers and sent to used-aircraft parts suppliers such as The Memphis Group in Tennessee and Volvo Aero in Sweden for resale.
Parts most in demand include engines, landing gear, winglets, and avionics. Second-hand-parts suppliers with FAA repair station certificates can refurbish and recertify those parts with service life remaining. Once the usable parts are out of an aircraft, mechanics go in and rip out the guts —including miles of wiring—and toss them into dumpsters. Then the shell is hoisted on top of blocks and the grapple and shears start devouring. The munching takes about 10 days for a 747. “It’s three stories tall and you can’t just start chomping at it because it would fall over and kill you,” says Gary Kippur, president of Tucson Iron & Metal, which works with Evergreen.
The aluminum remains of a 747, worth at least $20,000, will fill five 50-foot trailers; an early-model 737 will fill just one. Tucson Iron & Metal then drives those trailers to a secondary smelter, TIMCO, in Fontana, California, which melts the aluminum and separates it into ingots by specific chemistries, says Kippur. The metal then can be recast into such everyday things as car wheels, automobile transmission casings, or lawnmower engines.
New technologies that can sort aluminum by alloys or recover carbon fiber from composites are extremely timely, not only because of the volume of predicted aircraft retirements in the next decade, but also because the price of raw material—particularly for composites— is rising. Aerospace-grade carbon fiber, for example, sells for about $25 per pound. But, unlike aluminum, composites can’t just be crunched, melted, and recast. They have to be broken down under heat in a complicated process that turns them into a sort of hydrocarbon “soup.” From there, the various resins can be separated and mixed with other substances to produce recycled carbon fiber, which can be used in the wood products industry.
Wringing the most use out of old aircraft parts is a major issue for both dismantlers and manufacturers, such as Boeing, which is using a significant amount of composites on its new 787 Dreamliner. The aerospace giant already is working with Milled Carbon in Britain and Adherent Technologies in New Mexico, both of which are developing carbon fiber composite recycling technologies, and Boeing is manufacturing the 787 with recycling in mind, says Bill Carberry, Boeing’s project manager of aircraft and composite recycling. Carberry is enthusiastic about the prospects for composite recycling. “Boeing is confident that [the technologies] will provide an environmentally preferred alternative that will dramatically increase the value of end-of-life aircraft,” he says.
If recyclers have their way, the commercial airliner you fly today—or pieces of it, at least —could wind up as tomorrow’s building material for your house, deck, car, or cell phone.