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The rise of composite materials

Kirsty McMillan-Field - Membership Support Adviser

Composite materials have been used throughout history, dating as far back as 2100 BC. Today, composites research is being overwhelmed with large sum grants from governments, manufacturers and universities from all corners of the world, in a bid to further advancements. The aim: cheaper materials, manufactured to design, as kind to the environment as possible.

With such advancements in the composite world, I decided to delve deeper, investigating their properties, specialist's and uses. I was simply blown away with my findings.

So what are composites?

A Composite is a material made from two (or more) materials - Predominantly a Matrix and a Reinforcement. When combined, they produce a unique material with properties far superior to the properties of each individual component – A hybrid if you will.

A matrix is normally a form of resin that keeps the reinforcement material in a desired orientation. It protects the reinforcement material from chemical and environmental attack, and it bonds the reinforcement so that applied loads can be effectively transferred.

A reinforcement is most commonly a fibre used to support the matrix material, providing additional strength and stiffness. The reinforcement fibres can be cut, aligned and assembled in a variety of ways, with the intention of customising the overall properties.

Additives are used in composite manufacturing, not only to reduce costs but also to modify the materials properties and tailor its performance such as improved water resistance, weathering, surface smoothness, stiffness, dimensional stability and temperature resistance.

Core materials are also used extensively throughout the composites industry. They are “sandwiched” in between the reinforcement and resin to significantly increase stiffness and flexural strength while reducing warpage.

The term ‘composite’ can be used for a multitude of materials, the most common are CFRP - Carbon fibre-reinforced polymers and GFRP - Glass fibre-reinforced polymers.

Features & Benefits

Pound for pound, composites are stronger than other materials, particularly steels. The two primary components of composites – fibres and resins – contribute to the strength of the material. Fibres carry the load, while resins distribute the weight equally. They are also extremely light in weight compared to most woods. Lighter objects are of course, easier to transport and install. They also provide fuel efficiency when used in cars and airplanes.

Composites resist damage from weather and harsh chemicals that can eat away at other materials. That makes them good choices for applications that are constantly exposed to water, chemicals, temperature fluctuations and other severe conditions. Structures that are made with composites have a long life span and require little maintenance. Properties such as these are well received in industries such as marine and aerospace. On top of this, a wide variety of material combinations can be used to create a composite, allowing for complete design flexibility, tailored to meet unique specifications.

Uses

Major OEMs such as Airbus and Boeing are tackling common aviation issues - such as safety, weight and cost - by replacing existing metal components with composite substitutes. I recently stumbled across an interesting article from Boeing themselves regarding the use of composites within the 747. More than 50% of the airframe is now made using composite materials. Composites have also become a vital role in space exploration and military applications such as satellites and missiles due to their thermal stability.

The automotive industry is no stranger to composites. Industry wide usage has helped make vehicles lighter, more fuel efficient and in turn, cheaper to manufacture. BMW stands out as a pioneer of composite usage, leading the way in large-scale composite manufacturing. They have recently partnered with Boeing, combining their expertise in order to improve production and recycling.

The leisure industry is one of the biggest consumers of composites. From helmets to kayaks and everything in between, carbon fibre and fibreglass composite materials have provided durable, lightweight alternatives to traditional equipment.

Composites are used globally to help construct and repair an extensive array of infrastructure applications such as buildings, bridges, roads and railways. Composites offer architects and designers both performance and value in large-scale projects and their use is increasing in commercial and residential buildings.

The marine and subsea industries have been using composites successfully for decades. Glass-fibre composites, in particular, have excellent environmental resistance and durability, making it an ideal material for submerged components.

Fibre-reinforced polymer composites are increasingly being incorporated within medical applications because of their light-weight, high-stiffness characteristics and biocompatibility. The dental industry uses composites as a (safer) alternative to conventional amalgam fillings - which are known to cause mercury poisoning. Artificial limbs and joints also use FRPC’s to ensure stability and flexibility where needed. Major advancements within the medical industry also see composites implanted directly into cartilage to promote resurfacing.

Significant advances within the oil and gas industry have been made in recent years, with many applications such as modules, pipe work, fluid handling and pressure vessels to name a few, all now made from composite materials. Perhaps the biggest advantage of composites for large energy projects, particularly within solar and wind applications, is reduced maintenance costs over an expected 20-30 year service life.

The Future

The Future Composites Manufacturing Hub is a UK initiative, led by the University of Nottingham and the University of Bristol. It also includes 4 other Spokes; Cranfield University, Imperial College London, the University of Manchester, and the University of Southampton. Together, they aim to implement automated manufacturing technologies that deliver components and structures for demanding applications, with a £10.3m investment into R&D.

As the composites industry continues to evolve, the ways in which we currently manufacture could change forever. We’ve already seen huge advancements within the aerospace, automotive and marine industry, largely due to composite but also due to the advent of additive manufacturing – A future proof combination?
 

If you have experience in working with composites - get in touch, we'd love to hear from you! 

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About Kirsty McMillan-Field

Kirsty has been working at Qimtek for over a year and brings with her experience in Customer Services, Administration and Marketing, from a wide variety of industries. She is first and foremost an avid star wars fan and animal lover, who has a passion for travelling the world on a budget.

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