Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Aptera and Composite Materials

Any start-up composite material company is likely having a hard time finding funding right now. As the federal government seems to be the best source for early seed money, electric car companies such as Fisker, Tesla, and Aptera are all waiting and hoping for loans from the Department of Energy.

Meanwhile, a company like Aptera, who's production is on hold until additional funding rolls through, is in a tough situation as they need to remain ready for production, but need to conserve cash. In a recent Wired Article, two of the original Aptera founders have been let go in addition to other Aptera employees.

The article also states that they are redesigning some of the features. Currently, the windows do not roll down, and if you want to go through a drive through or talk to a friend outside, you must open the door. So to correct this, they are changing the design. Like most molded composite products, Apteria likely will have to redesign the door structure, build new molds, and manufacture/test new composite panels.

Let us all hope success for Aptera, automotive companies utilizing composites, and all other start-ups who work with composite materials.

Photo Credit: Kevin Marks via flicker

Friday, November 13, 2009

More Biomimicry and Composite Materials

Here are some more great examples of materials in development derived from nature.

Photo Credit: Ryan Somma via flicker

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Critical National Need: Advanced Composites Manufacturing

The Technology Innovation Program (TIP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was set up to "support, promote, and accelerate innovation in the U.S. through high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need." The institute helps fund (through 50% cost sharing grants) R&D projects that may be too risky for the traditional investment community.

The 2010 NIST TIP program has identified 4 areas of "critical national need," they are:
  • Civil Infrastructure
  • Healthcare
  • Energy
  • Manufacturing
Manufacturing was identified as a highly important aspect of our economy because as of 2007, manufacturing represented 11.7% of the total GDP and 14 million US jobs. (This number has likely dropped in the last two years.) In order for the US to maintain global leadership in manufacturing technology, new and revolutionary innovations are required. In this recent NIST White Paper, the following 3 materials in particular are sited as in need of continued technology advancement:
  • Nanomaterials
  • Composite Materials
  • Super/Specialty Alloys and Smart Materials
Additionally, the paper identified the following problems and promises of composite materials:
  • Aerospace industry’s emphasis on fuel efficiency favors the use of polymer-matrix composites instead of aluminum
  • Automotive industry recognizes advantages of weight reduction, parts consolidation and increased cost-effective design options for polymer-matrix composites;
  • Energy sector’s growing use of wind energy has led to increased demand for polymer-matrix composite turbine blades;
  • Better processes and tools needed to recognize special properties such as the anisotropic nature of these materials (strength and stiffness greatest in direction parallel to axis of the embedded reinforcements);
  • Need to overcome cost barriers to use such as expensive starting materials, time-consuming fabrication processes, and autoclaves and expensive tooling;
  • Multiple industries require accommodation of production of large, structurally complex parts; and
  • Increased application of recyclable composites can reduce carbon footprint.
Some of the best and brightest minds of our nation who work for NIST identified the above as the future of composite materials. If you are a composite material company, I would suggest reading the entire white paper as it may inspire innovation. In particular, I like that NIST identified recyclable composites as a future component of composite material manufacturing. I imagine thermoplastic composites will play a major role in the recycalability of composites, as post consumer plastic (such as the PET bottles in the picture at the top) can be used as a replacement for thermoset resin.

Photo Credit: ThreadedThoughts via flicker

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lightweight Composite Medical Device

On this blog I like to point out interesting and novel uses of composite materials. For example, the medical is slowing starting to accept composites, and like the carbon fiber prosthetic legs, above is a video of an interesting option to crutches and wheelchairs.

The freedom leg uses molded composite braces to transfer the load from the upper, un-injured leg, to the ground. It weights a little over 2 lbs, and if I had a broken leg, I'd consider using it...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

$10 Million Dollar Carbon Fiber Mast

The carbon fiber mast on the Oracle BMW America's Cup boat failed and snapped yesterday. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, the designing and building of the mast with spars cost a cool $25 million. However, a replacement carbon fiber mast is only going to set them back $10 million USD, and the boat should be repaired in time for the upcoming America's Cup.

Ironically, the carbon fiber mast snapped during a non-stressful practice session with light winds, I hope they have boat insurance that covers composite materials...

Photo Credit: Port of San Diego via flicker

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wind Turbine from Bee Wings - Biomimicry in Composites

A favorite topic on the composite material blog is the process of learning from nature to make better products and material, this is known as biomimicry. We've talked before about analyzing shellfish, spider silk, geckos and fish.

Above is a video from a start-up called Green Wavelength. They have designed a wind turbine based upon the wings of bees. Quite an interesting concept, and it would be interesting to see details on the performance and mechanics. I am guessing the "wings" are being constructed with composite materials.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stealth Wind Turbines - Using Composite Materials

As wind energy becomes more popular, the negatives of the massive installations needs to be addressed. Noise, bird/bat deaths, and unsightliness are common issues with large turbines. Another concern not commonly addressed is the interference with radar systems.

The fast moving composite blades can reflect radar and can appear and cause confusion with military and civilian radar. This could potentially cause serious problems in the future.

A recent article from Technology Review discusses how the wind industry is addressing these concerns. A new coating is being used on the towers to absorb radio frequencies, and playing with new combination of composite materials and plastics in the skin is allowing for radar absorption as well.