Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What is a Composite Material

In the true definition, a composite material is simply a material that has two components which total strength combined, is greater than the sum of their individual components. For composites, 1+1 does not equal 2, but rather much, much more. There are many examples of composite materials, for example, particleboard is technically a composite. (wood and glue).

However, in the modern world, composites is the broad term which encompasses “fiber reinforced composites”, or FRP for short. This is the material that is changing our lives, and is opening doors to new possibilities.

FRP composite materials combine two primary components, a resin and an structural fiber. There are a variety of fiber reinforcements that are used in FRP composites. Glass fiber (fiberglass) has long been the low cost workhorse of the composites industry. Aramid fiber, the best known being Kevlar, a DuPont trademarked product, is used due to it’s high tensile strength which is ideal in ballistic and impact applications. Carbon fiber is another primary reinforcing fiber used today, it’s high modulus to weight ratio provides the ability to make lightweight yet stiff structures.

Although there are other fibers commonly used in composites today, such as basalt, thermoplastic fibers, natural fibers, and others. The three primary fibers used today are glass, aramid, and carbon.

The fibers alone are soft and flexible. Using traditional and modified textile weaving and knitting machinery, these fibers are woven or stitched together into fabrics and cloth. When saturated with resins these cloths become the backbone to the composite and provide the strength to the new materials.

The resins are design for composites. Alone, most resins used in composites are brittle or too flexible. Resins are either thermoset, or thermoplastic. Traditionally, composite resins are thermoset but thermoplastic is gaining popularity.

Thermoset resins include epoxy, polyester, vinyl ester, urethane, phenolic, and others. These resins start as a liquid, go through a chemical reaction fully cross linking the molecules, and finish as a solid. In composites, the resin will wet out the structural fibers encapsulating and curing around them.

This curing process is done in a mold, around a mandrel, or through a die, giving the finished composite the shape. It could be in the shape of a boat, a pipe, or simply a flat sheet. Once cured, not only can the composite have an excellent strength to weight ratio, but the resin and fiber can be selected to provide properties tailored to the application.

Possible Properties of FRP Composites
  • Lightweight
  • Non corrosive
  • Fire and flame resistance
  • Toughness / Impact resistance
  • Tailored flex properties
  • Attractive Cosmetics
  • Non conductive or extremely conductive
  • Water resistance

Beyond the properties, processing and manufacturing products with composites allow the ability to make complex parts and shapes. There are many reasons manufacturers are looking to composites to build their widgets both large and small. For any application the designer has the flexibility to tailor the properties to the specific need of the product. This unique design ability is what gives the true value to the composite. The possibilities are truly endless.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Investing In Composite Materials

Investing in composite materials is likely a good idea, it seems that their is a daily news report about a product utilizing composites or carbon fiber. The truth is, more and more products are integrating composite materials because they are higher performing. Additionally, as the composites industry further matures, manufacturing costs should continue to decrease.

The fact of the matter is, the composite material industry is a growth sector.

Annual Global Sales of Composite Materials:

2011 - $16.1 billion
2015 estimated - $28.2 billion
2020 estimated - $48.7 billion
(Source: Materials Technology Publications)

Part of the reasoning behind the success and predicted growth of the composite material industry, is the fast integration into almost every single major industrial sector. Think about all the industries that have adopted composites:
  • Aerospace
  • Defense
  • Space
  • Mass transit
  • Heavy trucking
  • Sports and leisure
  • Oil and gas
  • Marine
All it will take is GM, Ford, or Toyota to adopt composites and suddenly automotive is on this list. So the question is, how can one take part in the potential upside of composites? Well, there are publicly traded companies which are entrenched in composites, here are a few:

Photo Credit: Titanium22 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Carbon Fiber Technology Center - Oak Ridge National Laboratory

In order for the full utilization of carbon fiber in automotive applications. (Which is necessary to lower weight.) The cost of raw carbon fiber needs to decrease. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is taking on this challenge using $34.7 million in DOE ARPA funding; they are establishing a Carbon Fiber Technology Center. According to their website:
The center will be capable of producing up to 80 tons per year of low-cost carbon fiber for evaluation and use by industry and government partners. Primary equipment will include a thermal (conventional) carbon fiber conversion line and a melt-spun precursor fiber production line. Space and utility provisions are planned to add an advanced technology conversion line.
The overall goal of this technology center is to lower the cost of carbon fiber 50%. This could be a major breakthrough not only to the automotive industry in gaining better fuel efficiency, but many other applications of carbon fiber where high-strength and lightweight is crucial.

Photo Credit: ORNL

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cutting Kevlar with a Waterjet

Cutting Kevlar or any aramid fiber is no easy task. It's tenacity wears our tools and blades, while cuts are often frayed. Probably the best method for cutting laminated aramid fiber, is using a waterjet (as seen above). Although not cheap, these cuts are CNC controlled, so very accurate, and the cut edges are clean and burr free...

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Strongwell Looking at Green Composite Materials

The demand for environmentally friendly materials is growing and will continue to grow. Strongwell, perhaps the world's largest pultruder, recently announced their Green Initiative. This is a fantastic move in the correct direction. Products made with composite materials are in fact environmentally friendly. Composites are inherently lightweight and non-corrosive, which is why they are used in wind blades, automotive, and aerospace.

The life cycle of composites needs to be closely analysed. For example, although a steel structure can be recycled at the end of life, the life span may be shorter, and thus, the overall environmental impact could be greater over time. This all needs to be measured on a analytical and straight forward level.

This being said, FRP composites must figure out a recycling solution. Yes composites are "recyclable", but no company is doing it on a large practical scale... Yet...

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