Thursday, December 3, 2009

Composite Shipping Container

Since the advent of composite materials, and in particular, strong lightweight composite sandwich panels, engineers have been trying to replace the commonly used steel sea-land ISO shipping containers with composite materials.

It seems logical, steel shipping containers are extremely heavy, they spend a good deal of their life in a highly corrosive environment, and they don't last very long. However, the main barrier to entry is the fact that steel cargo containers are dirt cheap, especially as the majority of these containers are manufactured in low labor Asian markets.

As the raw material costs of steel rise, composite materials will have more of a realistic chance. In particular, niche composite containers such as refrigerated containers will likely be the first to be introduced.

Here is an article discussing a development program through the Department of Homeland Security for the design of composite tamper-proof containers. Besides the need for containers to be tamper proof for homeland security reasons, containers that are x-ray transparent will be easier to inspect at ports. Composite material is the viable long-term solution.

It is likely the use of composite shipping containers is inevitable. One aspect that must be kept in the forefront during the design process, is the containers' end of life. Current steel containers are easily recyclable, and the same will need to be true of composite replacements. Perhaps reinforced thermoplastic composites will be the design winner...

Photo Credit: Marc oh! via flicker

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