Technology that cleaned up 'toxic' US Air Force offered to civilian airlines

ES3 is one of thousands of exhibitors at Farnborough promoting an eco-friendly message

A United States Air Force F-35A fighter jet at the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK. Bloomberg
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An American company that transformed the US Air Force’s 7,000-strong fleet of warplanes to remove toxic coatings on steel components and replace them with eco-friendly alternatives is on a mission to help the aviation industry become greener.

Founded in 2000 by a group of engineers determined to reduce the harmful effects the aviation sector has on the environment, ES3 came up with solutions that are quickly attracting interest from airlines.

Years of research and testing resulted in a breakthrough for workers who found that zinc nickel was a reliable alternative to cadmium, which has for decades been used to coat aircraft landing gear as protection against corrosion.

Cadmium poses serious risks to people if inhaled in large quantities and has been shown to cause cancer.

As well as posing a risk to human health, cadmium wreaks havoc on ecosystems because water tainted by the substance from the manufacturing process ends up in lakes and rivers. It is toxic to plants, animals and micro-organisms and given that it is a simple chemical element it has persistent qualities that mean it cannot be broken down into less toxic substances.

Cadmium has for decades been used in industries to coat steel to protect against corrosion. While the auto sector found less-damaging alternatives the aviation industry struggled. This is because very strong steel is required in the making of landing parts, such as shock absorbers and equipment that holds wheels in place.

ES3’s alternative product using zinc nickel combines the sacrificial properties of zinc with the strength and the robust corrosion resistance of nickel and does not have any of the toxicity carried by cadmium.

Workers spent 12 years stripping cadmium coating from US Air Force planes and replacing it with zinc nickel, while also swapping chromium for chromium plating for high velocity oxygenated fuel.

Now ES3, which has sites in California, Utah, Georgia, Oklahoma and Austria, is on a mission to help airlines remove toxic and hazardous substances from their aircraft as they strive for a more eco-friendly future.

“We retrospectively fitted these parts on to US Air Force planes,” Doug Wiser, the company's chief operating officer, told The National.

ES3 spent 12 years stripping toxic coating from about 7,000 US Air Force planes. AFP

“We had around 20 people involved. Each plane has about 20 or 30 parts so we’re talking of taking tens or even hundreds of thousands of parts out.

“We also helped the whole Air Force to implement the changes at repair depots when a plane is brought in for repairs.

“Cadmium is very hazardous and is a carcinogen.

“During manufacturing and repairing plane landing parts workers are exposed to it. They have to be careful not to ingest or inhale.

“In our process we use zinc nickel which is much more friendly, and it’s not hazardous or regulated.”

The company is among the thousands of exhibitors at this week’s Farnborough International Airshow in the UK displaying their products and services to potential new customers. This year’s event, the first gathering of the global space, aerospace, aviation and defence industries since before the Covid-19 pandemic, has a large focus on sustainability.

ES3 has worked with Delta Airlines and Boeing to improve the quality of plane parts and is eager to work with other big names in the industry.

Mr Wiser, who has three decades of experience in the industry, said airlines have shown a keen interest in his company’s services and appear to be hungry for change.

“Airlines want help with developing either their own plating process so they can do this themselves, or they ask us to do it for them,” he said.

“We have had a lot of interest from people wanting to know about our products. The environmental aspect is very important for them.”

Updated: July 22, 2022, 6:00 AM