Engineering has seen a lot of changes over the past few years and the materials used are no exception. Composites have slowly risen in popularity to enable revolutionary advancements within a number of sectors, with no limit to the applications in which they are found.
Rather than referring to one specific material, composites are the name given to a group of materials which are comprised of at least two ‘raw’ materials. This gives the composite a unique set of properties which can be tailored to suit the end application, i.e. flexible but strong, or lightweight but durable. Subsequently, composites have become a staple component of many everyday items, while enabling constant innovation and complex design upgrades within a multitude of industries.
Here is an industry-by-industry breakdown of the ways in which composites are making headway:
The aerospace industry has become a wide user of composites, largely owing to the weight reduction achieved versus the use of alternative materials and alloys. Aircraft components commonly made from composite materials include fins and rotor blades, whilst plane wings are also largely comprised of composite materials. As the nature of aerospace is safety-critical, it’s important that the associated components are able to withstand fatigue; this is easily achieved through the use of composites, unlike metal components that are prone to deteriorate over time.
Space travel and exploration is also heavily reliant on the use of composites. The journey to and from space puts spacecraft under an enormous amount of stress and therefore, they must be manufactured from materials that can cope with the conditions of liftoff and re-entry, as well as the pressurisation experienced outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Composites can handle these demands with ease, whilst also providing astronauts with a protective barrier against radiation and other harmful aspects of space travel.
Much like aerospace, the medical industry favours the use of composites for their lightweight properties, as well as their compatibility with biological tissues. The manufacture of prosthetics has now largely moved towards the use of composites, as they can be used to better mimic the natural movement and function of limbs. The same can be said for artificial joints, providing patients with a durable, long-lasting outcome to procedures such as hip and knee replacements.
Composites can also be used to imitate biological tissues. By inserting composite implants into affected areas, the function of the target is restored and cell growth is promoted.
Dentistry is another area in which composites are increasingly common. Dental composite resins are used to restore and fill tooth cavities and unlike traditional fillings, they do not pose any risk of mercury poisoning to the patient. Dental composite resins are also capable of filling cavities more precisely and thoroughly, without the need for extensive drilling into healthy areas of the affected tooth.
It goes without saying that the weight of a vehicle has a direct impact on its speed and performance within a race, which is why the motorsport industry was one of the earliest adopters of composites manufacturing. Carbon fibre composites are regularly used to manufacture structures such as race car chassis, providing a lightweight alternative to metal bodywork. Composites are seen throughout all niches of motorsport, including Formula 1, reaching a level of prominence that makes them the new status quo. As well as their weight-saving properties, composites are favoured for their strength, reducing the risk of serious injury in the event of a crash.
Composites provide a more lightweight solution for train interiors, with items such as doors and seats increasingly produced using composite materials. Their flame retardance also makes them a safer option in cases of emergency, which is a huge consideration for the operation of passenger rail services.
In addition to the trains themselves, railway infrastructure is also stood to benefit from the use of composite materials. Much like aerospace applications, it is imperative that railway infrastructure is able to withstand corrosion and fatigue. By manufacturing signalling systems and sleepers using composites, the result is a much more durable product with an increased lifespan, thus improving safety whilst simultaneously reducing costs incurred through replacement and repairs.
The construction industry has made significant headway with the use of composite materials. Fibre-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites are favoured for being aesthetically-pleasing, whilst allowing for the customisation of required properties where needed, i.e. to withstand explosions or fire. In addition, the lightweight components produced from FRP composites are easy to install, saving time within the construction process. Commonly-used composite parts include cladding, roofing and bridge structures, as well as being used to reinforce existing structures such as chimneys and towers.
The use of composites within the construction of buildings and infrastructure eliminates much of the maintenance that would be required through the use of traditional materials. It also enables in-situ repairs, meaning that there is less chance of extensive restorations being needed during the lifetime of the building or structure.