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Composite plastics help make Dreamliner the quietest, lightest, most fuel efficient bird in the sky

It might not be any bigger or any faster than an average commercial airplane, but Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which completed its maiden passenger voyage from Tokyo to Hong Kong around 4pm local time yesterday, is one of the quietest, lightest and most fuel efficient commercial service airliners in the sky. What makes the Dreamliner so special is that much of it is made from plastics.

Carbon-fiber reinforced composite plastics, to be exact. These thin, carbon, thread-like fibers, are combined with plastic resins, resulting in a material that’s unusually strong – unusual because it’s also incredibly lightweight and can be molded into many different shapes. Together, the 787’s dramatic weight reduction and optimally aerodynamic shape add up to huge gains in fuel efficiency.

In the Dreamliner, the composite materials contribute to an expected 20 percent reduction in fuel consumption and a corresponding reduction in emissions, compared to a similar size aluminum-frame and body airplane.

The lighter, more aerodynamic and more fuel-efficient plane can endure longer flights without refueling, allowing the plane to fly from 3,100 to 8,800 miles. That could allow for considerably more non-stop flights – adding to passenger convenience, comfort and satisfaction, while reducing landings and take-offs, and saving on fuel and emissions.

And the Dreamliner should be more comfortable for passengers. The strength of the composite material allows for more passenger and overhead space along with higher pressure and humidity inside the cabin – all of which can help reduce travel fatigue.

While the Dreamliner is the first aircraft to be built from plastics carbon fiber reinforced composites, the material is not new. It is currently used in a number of other applications, including automobiles, sports equipment, prosthetics, high-end audio equipment, musical instruments, helicopters and wind turbine blades.

Be sure to check out CNN’s “7 reasons the 787 Dreamliner is special” (you may no longer be surprised by number one!).

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