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Monday, April 2, 2012

Composites - The Future Materials

In this post, you'll get to know about composites and their uses.

For many years, aircraft designers could propose theoretical designs that they could not build because the materials needed to construct them did not exist. (The term "unobtainium" is sometimes used to identify materials that are desired but not yet available.) For instance, large spaceplanes like the Space Shuttle would have proven extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build without heat-resistant ceramic tiles to protect them during reentry. And high-speed forward-swept-wing airplanes like Grumman's experimental X-29 or the Russian Sukhoi S-27 Berkut would not have been possible without the development of composite materials to keep their wings from bending out of shape.

Composites are the most important materials to be adapted for aviation since the use of aluminum in the 1920s. Composites are materials that are combinations of two or more organic or inorganic components. One material serves as a "matrix," which is the material that holds everything together, while the other material serves as a reinforcement, in the form of fibers embedded in the matrix. Until recently, the most common matrix materials were "thermosetting" materials such as epoxy, bismaleimide, or polyimide. The reinforcing materials can be glass fiber, boron fiber, carbon fiber, or other more exotic mixtures.

Fiberglass is the most common composite material, and consists of glass fibers embedded in a resin matrix. Fiberglass was first used widely in the 1950s for boats and automobiles, and today most cars have fiberglass bumpers covering a steel frame. Fiberglass was first used in the Boeing 707 passenger jet in the 1950s, where it comprised about two percent of the structure. By the 1960s, other composite materials became available, in particular boron fiber and graphite, embedded in epoxy resins. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy began research into using these materials for aircraft control surfaces like ailerons and rudders. The first major military production use of boron fiber was for the horizontal stabilizers on the Navy's F-14 Tomcat interceptor. By 1981, the British Aerospace-McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier flew with over 25 percent of its structure made of composite materials.

Making composite structures is more complex than manufacturing most metal structures. To make a composite structure, the composite material, in tape or fabric form, is laid out and put in a mold under heat and pressure. The resin matrix material flows and when the heat is removed, it solidifies. It can be formed into various shapes. In some cases, the fibers are wound tightly to increase strength. One useful feature of composites is that they can be layered, with the fibers in each layer running in a different direction. This allows materials engineers to design structures that behave in certain ways. For instance, they can design a structure that will bend in one direction, but not another. The designers of the Grumman X-29 experimental plane used this attribute of composite materials to design forward-swept wings that did not bend up at the tips like metal wings of the same shape would have bent in flight.
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Some examples of composites are:                           
  • Carbon-Fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP)      
  • Glass Fiber reinforced plastic (GFRP)             
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