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Rolls-Royce – IEMA Closed-Loop Systems

3rd February 2020

Sam Todd

Comply Direct’s Sam Todd attended the IEMA Regional Workshop in December 2019, in which Rolls-Royce’s delivered a presentation on closed-loop systems and specifically those that have been adopted by Rolls-Royce. Sam discusses closed-loop systems and his findings from his visit to Rolls-Royce.

The process of recycling and the economy of materials has evolved over the years, the most basic of which is a linear economy. A linear economy is the process of disposal whereby a “take-make-dispose” philosophy is adopted. To ensure sustainable development in waste management, society would ideally seek to move towards a circular economy ensuring minimal raw material input, instead of seeking to replenish materials necessary for production through effective reuse and recycling, finding a use for each material.

Closed-loop systems are those where the output is used as an input (closed-loop system, 2020) therefore maximising closed-loop systems should provide a pathway toward a more circular economy. Ultimately this is an ideal scenario whereby there is effectively 0% unusable waste that is sent to landfill. Rolls-Royce have been pioneering the development of their own closed-loop recycling system for their operational waste streams.  Material flows in 2018 the system saw a 37.53% increase on the waste recovered for material use (as opposed to being sent for landfill) (material flow in 2018 sourced from Eurostat).

Over the next 20 years, society’s demand for effective intercountry travel will increase substantially, and the demand for air travel is expected to increase by 4% each year. As a group, Rolls-Royce have been pushing to deliver sustainable and competitive solutions to meet the planet’s power needs by championing electrification of transport links and reinventing their design process through the use of digital software to mitigate business waste.

I visited Rolls-Royce on 17 December 2019 attending the IEMA Regional Workshop, in which Rolls-Royces Environment Manager Matt Payne, delivered a presentation on closed-loop systems, and specifically those that have been adopted by Rolls-Royce.

Having diverted their attentions from car manufacture to aviation and aerospace engineering, Rolls-Royce are constantly innovating to produce both energy and resource-efficient designs; but what happens to the components of a jet engine when it reaches the ‘end of its life’? Rolls-Royce are making headway to ensure that, through a closed-loop recycling system, the key resources in each of their products see optimized use and recovery. Furthermore, Rolls-Royce have tried to ensure that component replacement is kept to a minimum, whilst also offering near wing repair services further reducing transportation costs and emissions.  

The “Revert” Programme

Recently as part of their more servitised business model, Rolls-Royce have deployed their ‘Revert’ Programme, the aim of which is to ensure that any metal waste is eventually returned to the supplier for the purposes of ensuring that it returns to an aerospace-grade. The most interesting component of the ‘Revert’ process is Rolls-Royce’s election to collect end of life parts and whole engines from customers, to ultimately strip these down and reconvert the materials into new engine components through recycling.  To enable further practical applications of the waste, it is cleaned, sorted and sent back to the supplier for further reprocessing. The two areas where this is seeing the greatest focus is in the production line and the parts that are currently in service. Machine turnings, swarf and foundry off-cuts in the engine production are collected for repurposing in the production line in their revert process.

Through the implementation of processes to effectively remove coatings, contaminants and segregation of alloys Rolls-Royce have ensured that almost half of the used aero engines can be feasibly recycled. Where it is possible to obtain high quality, valuable metals such as rhenium, hafnium, nickel and titanium.

The revert process has demonstrated some key benefits in line with their sustainability goals by:

  • Reducing material consumption through the reuse and recycling of materials;
  • Reducing the necessity of virgin materials through extraction
  • Reducing the carbon footprint of new engines.

What’s more Rolls-Royce can ensure the security of their supply and minimise the waste that ends in the environment.

Nevertheless, as with many closed-loop systems, this new system does pose some challenges in practice, first of which being the availability of the necessary materials to initiate the reuse/recycling as geography, technology and economic factors all need to be taken into consideration when collecting this waste. Additionally, repeated recycling of a material can ultimately impact the material’s suitability in a new application. The ultimate goal of the revert process would be to ensure a perfectly closed-loop system, however in reality, some leakage is inevitable.

It is encouraging to see large organisations such as Rolls-Royce taking active steps towards sustainability, and in particular, combining this with circular economy. The “Revert” process demonstrates that with the appropriate infrastructure in place, a circular economy can be both beneficial for both consumers and producers.

To read our full Circular Economy Blog please click here.