I have just returned from the International Conference for Composite Materials (ICCM) in Montreal, Canada and would like to share a few observations and key points about the developments in the composite world that may not be so easily accessible to a broader audience.
1) The Great Advance – Applications
ICCM is the biggest conference for composite materials and this year united over 1500 delegates from academia and different industrial representatives from the classical sectors aerospace, wind energy and high performance cars to newer sectors such as mass market cars (e.g. BMW i3), biomedical applications and even musical instruments. The motto of the conference “Composite Materials: The Great Advance” aptly captures the current state of technology in the industry. Since the 1960 considerable amount of research has been conducted to elucidate the mechanical and chemical properties of the fibre material, matrix and cured composite under various conditions such that the global behaviour of these materials is now sufficiently characterised. This maturity in technology coupled with the ever decreasing costs and the inherent benefits of high specific stiffness and strength that fibre-reinforced plastics have to offer, has led to the increasing application of composite materials in very different industries that we see today. Thus the “great advance” of composite materials towards wide-spread use in many industrial sectors.
2) The Great Advance – Novel Technologies
Furthermore, “The Great Advance” also relates to novel composite materials with much greater complexity that blur the lines between what is a material and what is a structure. Of course on a macroscopic scale one could say the steel in a steel bridge is the “material” that has been used to construct the “structure” that is the bridge. Therefore in this classical interpretation steel is just the building block to make the bridge, while the structure itself is the final product that performs a function. However on a microscopic scale we could argue that steel is a structure in itself since it is “constructed” of different sized grains that contain different metallic compounds and is thus an arrangement of small particles i.e. a microstructure. We could of course continue this argument further and further up to the atomic scale at which point we have reached the field of nanotechnology. This field of research has enjoyed much popularity in recent years since by manufacturing our products from the ground-up, i.e. from the nanoscale to the macroscale, we can control the properties of our product at multiple length-scales and therefore tailor the characteristics to be optimal for the desired function in service or even add some sort of multi-functionality to the structure/material. Since the material and structure are built at the same time the dividing line that used to distinguish between these two concepts is blurred. Even for a simple composite laminate comprised of a stack of individual layers this divide is no longer so clear since we can define the properties of each ply in the stacking direction and therefore have control over one more length scale.
Therefore in the future there will be a great advance towards novel and multifunctional materials/structures that perform so much more than carrying structural loads. Currently the design of composite structures is still in some cases dominated by a “black aluminium” approach. That is taking the current designs that have worked so well over the last decades using aluminium and replacing them by an equivalent composite design. The problem with this is that on one hand the composite material may not be suitable to carry loads in the same configuration e.g. loads through the thickness have to be avoided to prevent delaminations. Most importantly however, such a design approach hinders the greatest advantage of this new material system, which is to facilitate entirely new structures in terms of functionality and shape that arise as a results of their inherent properties. Only by completely re-designing structures from the ground-up and taking the intricacies of this new material system into consideration can we arrive a new optimal solutions or conversely ascertain that a metal solution actually works better under some circumstances. In the following I want to share a few exciting technologies that you may see in the near future.
1) Variable stiffness technology
This is my field of research and essentially what we are currently doing is changing the fibre direction over the planform of the plate such that we have curvilinear fibres rather than the straight fibre laminates that we use today. In many aerospace applications we require different laminate stacking sequences in different parts of the structure. Abruptly changing from one stacking sequence to another can lead to stress concentrations and thus structurally weaker areas at the interface. Using the variable fibre concept we can easily spatially blend from one layup to another to reduce these problems. Furthermore, we can arrange the fibre paths to follow the dominant load paths as for example around a window in an aircraft fuselage. Loads in a structure always follow the path of highest stiffness. So by aligning the fibres in the load direction in supported areas of the laminate (for example the vertical edges in Fig. 3 below if the load is applied vertically onto the horizontal edges), a large portion of the stress can be removed from the unsupported centre of the panel, which can greatly improve the elastic stability of the structure. This has great potential for future wing structures since the design of wing skins is greatly governed by local buckling (Fig. 4). It has been shown that the buckling loads can be improved by 70%-100% using variable stiffness technology (5), thus the possibility exists to reduce the weight of wing structures by up to 20% using this technology.
Another form of various stiffness technology is placing material in areas where it is needed and removing it from areas where it is not required. Nature is an expert in achieving this and many of our current design are based on bio-mimicry. For example, your bones are continuously being re-modelled based on the stresses that are placed on your skeleton. In this way the density of your bones is increased in highly-stresses areas and decreased in areas that are not used so much. In the same way sea-sponge arranges its structure in a way to achieve the most efficient design. Similarly, wood possesses an incredibly complex microstructure that is composed of different structural hierarchies at different length scales. This is similar to a rope where individual fibres are twisted together to make strands, strands are twisted together to make bundles, and bundles twisted together to make the complete rope. This approach of designing at multiple length-scales makes wood very ductile and resilient to cracks. In this manner attempts have been made to reproduce such a hierarchical design by arranging short fibres using standing ultrasonic waves.
2) Self Healing
Yes, materials can heal themselves. The most popular example is that of self-healing asphalt, which was presented a few years ago at a TED conference. In terms of composites 100% recuperation of mechanical properties have been achieved when the mode of failure has been dominated by matrix cracks. In high performance composites the matrix is currently some sort of thermoset or thermoplastic, which allows vascules of uncured resin to be included in the structure which may break open as a crack propagates. The uncured resin then permeates through the open crack and cures in-situ to repair the full functionality of the part. The dissemination of the healing process can also be achieved using very thin vascules that are arranged throughout the part. In this manner the structure starts to behave very much like a living organisms with the vascules serving as pathways for repair very similar to the veins in an organism. Recently a great article by the BBC summarised the major achievements in this field.
Nanotechnology has been extremely popular during the last 20 years due to the fact that theoretical predictions promise incredible benefits for almost all applications in engineering. In terms of advanced composites however, there are still problems of evenly dispersing nanotubes in resins with agglomeration or alternatively producing continuous nano-strands at low costs. In the aerospace industry they show great promise in increasing the electrical conductivity of laminates to improve their resistance against lightning-strike, creating structures for magnetic shielding and providing interlaminar strengthening using nano-forests. One of the cooler things I saw at ICCM was research conducted on nano-muscles, which are essentially nano-fibres that have been twisted into a rope and can achieve very high actuation forces and strokes at very little mass.
4) Structural Batteries / Energy Harvesting
Solar power has incredible potential as an energy source since it is the largest form of energy available for consumption on earth and is limitless. However, solar power is sporadically dependent on the weather conditions, which makes energy conversion rather cost intensive and inefficient. However, solar energy harvesting might find increasing use if actively integrated into load-bearing components as a multi-functional structure. Bonding thin-film solar cells onto lightweight composites would eliminate the material redundancy of stand-alone supporting structures and could easily be integrated into current laminate manufacturing technology. Photovoltaic (PV) cells have been imbedded in composite laminates and their performance has not been impeded by the curing process. However, the performance of the PV cells diminishes rapidly under static loading since the loading causes cracks in the cells. Similarly there are ideas to create structural batteries such that the load carrying chassis of a car can be “charged-up” to additionally serve as the battery for an electric powertrain. Of course this would have the great advantage that the heavy batteries used today could be eliminated to some extent. BAE systems are working on technology to embed battery chemistries into the carbon fibre fabric.
Finally, morphing or shape-changing structures have been extensively studied since the 1970’s for providing aircraft with the possibility of adapting the shape of their wings to provide the optimal lift for different flight scenarios. Of course this is to some extent already used in aircraft with the aid of leading edge slats and trailing-edge flaps to increase the lift-coefficient for slower flight regimes such as landing and lift-off and in Formula 1 using drag reduction system of the rear wing. However, slats and flaps on an aircraft greatly increase the drag of the profile during deployment and increase the weight of the structure do the heavy actuation mechanism. Therefore the aim is to design an integral system such as the trailing-edge design shown below. Other examples of morphing structures include air intakes for cars, noise-reducing chevrons on jet-engines, or high-temperature composites used for jet-engine turbine blades that change there angle of attack based on the temperature of the airflow around them.
However, in most cases these technologies are very difficult to apply to primary aircraft structures. This is because there is a direct conflict between the high-stiffness, high-strength requirement for carrying loads and the low-stiffness, large-deflections required for shape-changes. Thus, a driver to facilitate these technologies will be the development of materials that change there mechanical properties under different circumstances.
3) The Great Advance – Solving “big” problems for larger scale implementation
Finally, one of themes during the conference was trying to solve some of the major problems faced by the industry hindering further implementation of current composite technology in all industrial sectors. Of course for some industries such as mass consumer automobiles the biggest barrier to entry is cost. The new BMW i3, which will enter the marketplace at the start of 2014, will cost £30,000+ and is therefore quite a big investment for a small city vehicle. Of course some of the cost can be attributed to the cost of the electrical drivetrain and batteries but other manufacturers such as Renault have shown that a lot of these costs can be reduced by employing a scheme based on renting batteries rather than buying them with the vehicle. In case of the i3 a lot of the extra cost is simply down to the fact that BMW are the first to build a mass produced automobile using a large amount of fibre-reinforced plastics in primary structural parts. Not only is cost of raw material much higher than for lightweight metals such as aluminium but the manufacturing processes and supply chain management required for reliable mass production were simply not in-place beforehand. Furthermore, a shift in design methodologies is required since the chemical and mechanical behaviour of composites is so different from the metal environment that the automobile industry is so used to dealing with. As an example, proving the structural integrity for the incredible rigorous crash/impact certification using rather brittle composite materials compared to more ductile metals is a challenge in itself. Thus, the relatively high price-tag of the i3 incorporates some of the research and development costs that BMW have had to face in developing composite technology for their market sector. No doubt the cost of mass market composite cars will reduce drastically in the next decade as the raw material price further reduces and design methodologies and manufacturing processes mature.
Another major issue hindering the implementation of composites especially in the aerospace industry is the difficulty of predicting the failure behaviour of these materials. On problem is the large number of failure modes that may occur: fibre breakage, matrix cracks, delamination, fibre crimping, fibre-matrix debonding, global and local buckling etc. and thus finding accurate failure loads for all these phenomena under different load cases. Since a larger number of these failure mechanisms originate on a local, micro-mechanical scale high-fidelity 3D Finite Element models are often needed to fully understand the mechanisms of failure and predict the load-carrying capability of different structures. Considering the size of any commercial aircraft it is absolutely inconceivable to apply such detailed and computationally expensive analysis tools to every part of an aircraft. Furthermore, the failure mechanisms are not as well defined as for metal materials. That is in classical tensile or compressive tests a specimen may undergo some form of non-linearity that may for a metal specimen be classified as a failure event but for the composite considerable residual strength is available. Conversely the failure behaviour of composites can be very brittle with very little warning compared to the gradual, ductile failure mechanism of most metals used in the aerospace industry. Considering the intricacies of composite failure modes and the fact that the individual failure modes may interact or even change in criticality depending on the size of the component and environment in which it is used, it is no wonder that currently very conservative safety factors are being employed for primary composite aircraft structures that greatly offset the weight-savings that are possible using this new material system. Thus, one of the biggest if not the biggest topic in composite structural design for the next couple of years will be the challenge of developing simple and yet robust failure criteria to be used for composite designers.
(3) Kim et al. (2012). “Continuous Tow Shearing for Manufacturing Variable Angle Tow Composites”. Composites: Part A, 43, pp. 1347-1356
(5) Gürdal Z, Tatting B, Wu C. (2008). “Variable stiffness composite panels: Effects of stiffness variation on the in-plane and buckling response”. Composites: Part A, 39(5), pp. 911-922.
(6) Greil P, Lifka T, Kaindl, A. (1998). “Biomorphic Cellular Silicon Carbide Ceramics from Wood: I. Processing and Microstructure”. Journal of European Ceramic Society, 18(14), pp. 1961-1973.
(7) Rincon, P. (2012). “Time to heal: The material that heal themselves.”http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19781862
(8) Daynes S & Weaver P.M. (2011). “A Morphing Wind Turbine Blade Control Surface”. Proceedings of the ASME 2011 Conference on Smart Materials, Adaptive Structures and Intelligent Systems. Phoenix, AZ: ASME.
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