Aeroengines investigated in circular economy study

A research project led by Exeter University is seeking to demonstrate how data collected from products in use such as aeroengines can help companies adopt strategies for re-using resources.

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The EPSRC-funded ‘Circular 4.0’ project aims to demonstrate that adopting circular economy principles can add value to businesses – economically, environmentally, and through increased brand value. Partners include Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Cranfield University.

By the end of the project in January 2022 the project expects to have identified three specific use cases applying to Rolls-Royce, Airbus and hydrogen fuel cell car manufacturer Riversimple. The researchers also hope to work with other partners through a series of industry engagement days.

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The project proposal notes that although there have been successes “by a handful of manufacturers to move towards more sustainable practices through the use of data-driven intelligence”, businesses remain unclear about how to implement circular economy strategies.

Project leader Prof Fiona Charnley, deputy director of the Centre for Circular Economy in Exeter University’s business school, said that among the project partners, Rolls-Royce’s use case was currently the most advanced.

Rolls-Royce collects a wide range of data from its aeroengines, including condition monitoring information but also flying hours and historical information about which components fail most frequently. This aim is to combine this with other big data sources on weather patterns, and whether the engine has been flown in sandy or salty conditions, for example, to develop a “health metric” to assess the remaining life of different components. In turn this will make possible more informed decisions about whether parts can be “harvested” for re-use in reconditioned engines, for example.

“An engine contains lots of different components and they have different life cycles. There’s quite a lot of wasted value – at the end of a life cycle an engine is taken apart and it’s not really understood how much life or value is left in some of those components,” Prof Charnley said.

This approach could lead to a reduction in the use of valuable finite resources. “As resources get more expensive, high value manufacturers are trying to reduce their use of virgin resources,” she added. There is potentially significant business value for companies in reducing their reliance on new resources, but though they may have components that have a lot of life left in them they lack “the specific data to demonstrate that they are as good as new effectively”.