|Company||Anglia Composites Ltd|
From clay bricks in the Stone Age to carbon-reinforced plastic for Airbus A380 today, composite materials have come a long way. They are light, strong and flexible, and can be custom made for a specific application. Mother Nature has used them to make plants and animals — wood and bones respectively. Swedish chemist Berzelius is credited with making saturated polyester for the first time in a laboratory in 1847.
Resins made from plants and animals dominated the scene before the development of plastics in the 1900s. The synthetic composite materials were better and kept getting better. But plastics alone were not strong enough.
The game-changing fibre reinforced polymers owe their existence to Owen Corning, who came up with fibreglass in 1935. Today, fibre-reinforced plastics dominate the category as the manufacturers across sectors search for lighter and better raw materials.
Composite materials are in demand because of their longer life, resistance to chemicals, and better thermal and electrical insulation, among other reasons. Their use will increase as scientists discover their hidden properties.
Spoils of War
Wars have given birth to many innovations. The Mongols were the first to use composite materials. They developed a bow using wood, birch bark, bone, and animal glue. This bow was the ultimate weapon till gunpowder was invented.
The Second World War played the catalyst in the journey of fibre reinforced polymers from labs to factories. Their light weight and high strength made them ideal for use in military aircraft and boats.
The ships used in the invasion of Normandy had fibreglass components. It was only later that their other properties were discovered and the universe of composite materials expanded. The discovery of carbon and boron fibres is attributed to the space race that started in 1957. The high price of boron limited its use to the industry catering to the military.
In the post World War II era, grandfather of composite materials Brandt Goldsworthy developed new manufacturing processes and products, starting with a fibreglass surfboard. Today, ladders, hand rails, tool handles, pipes, arrow shafts, armour, train floors and medical devices are among goods that are produced using Pultrusion, one of the processes developed by Goldsworthy.
Sports and automobile industries became important consumers in the 1980s. The development of computers allowed the scientists to explore new techniques and develop better composite materials.
The 1990s heralded another revolution – the birth of hybrids and nanocomposites. Thereafter, developments, whether in products or manufacturing processes, have been incremental rather than ground-breaking.
There is also a focus on being environment-friendly. Over the years, the aircraft industry has slipped in rankings of users of composite materials but the new Airbus A380 has changed all that.
While most of the fuselage is aluminum, composite materials comprise more than 20% of the A380's airframe. Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, glass-fibre reinforced plastic and quartz-fibre reinforced plastic are used extensively in wings, fuselage sections (such as the undercarriage and rear end of fuselage), tail surfaces, and doors. The A380 is the first commercial airliner to have a central wing box made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic. It is also the first to have a smoothly contoured wing cross section.
The transportation industry is the main user today, followed by construction, marine, electrical and electronic equipment, consumer, and appliance and business equipment industries.
Composite materials have revolutionised technology, whether in terms of designing materials or forging alliances for common good, such as that between glass and textile industries in the 1950s.