Composite materials, often shortened to composites or called composition materials, are engineered or naturally occurring materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties which remain separate and distinct at the macroscopic or microscopic scale within the finished structure.
A common example of a composite would be disc brake pads, which consist of hard ceramic particles embedded in soft metal matrix. Another example is found in shower stalls and bathtubs which are made of fibreglass. Imitation granite and cultured marble sinks and countertops are also widely used. The most advanced examples perform routinely on spacecraft in demanding environments.
Wattle and daub is one of the oldest manmade composite materials, at over 6000 years old. Concrete is also a composite material, and is used more than any other man-made material in the world. As of 2006, about 7.5 billion cubic metres of concrete are made each year—more than one cubic metre for every person on Earth.
Wood is a natural composite of Cellulose fibres in a matrix of lignin.  The earliest man-made composite materials were straw and mud combined to form bricks for building construction. The ancient brick-making process can still be seen on Egyptian tomb paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Composites are made up of individual materials referred to as constituent materials. There are two categories of constituent materials: matrix and reinforcement. At least one portion of each type is required. The matrix material surrounds and supports the reinforcement materials by maintaining their relative positions. The reinforcements impart their special mechanical and physical properties to enhance the matrix properties. A synergism produces material properties unavailable from the individual constituent materials, while the wide variety of matrix and strengthening materials allows the designer of the product or structure to choose an optimum combination.
Engineered composite materials must be formed to shape. The matrix material can be introduced to the reinforcement before or after the reinforcement material is placed into the mould cavity or onto the mould surface. The matrix material experiences a melding event, after which the part shape is essentially set. Depending upon the nature of the matrix material, this melding event can occur in various ways such as chemical polymerization or solidification from the melted state.
A variety of moulding methods can be used according to the end-item design requirements. The principal factors impacting the methodology are the natures of the chosen matrix and reinforcement materials. Another important factor is the gross quantity of material to be produced. Large quantities can be used to justify high capital expenditures for rapid and automated manufacturing technology. Small production quantities are accommodated with lower capital expenditures but higher labour and tooling costs at a correspondingly slower rate.
Many commercially produced composites use a polymer matrix material often called a resin solution. There are many different polymers available depending upon the starting raw ingredients. There are several broad categories, each with numerous variations. The most common are known as polyester, vinyl ester, epoxy, phenolic, polyimide, polyamide, polypropylene, PEEK, and others. The reinforcement materials are often fibres but also commonly ground minerals. The various methods described below have been developed to reduce the resin content of the final product, or the fibre content is increased. As a rule of thumb, lay up results in a product containing 60% resin and 40% fibre, whereas vacuum infusion gives a final product with 40% resin and 60% fibre content. The strength of the product is greatly dependent on this ratio.
Common matrixes include mud (wattle and daub), cement (concrete), polymers (fiber reinforced plastics), metals and ceramics. Unusual matrixes such as ice are also sometime proposed as in pykecrete.
Typically, most common polymer-based composite materials, including fiberglass, carbon fiber, and Kevlar, include at least two parts, the substrate and the resin.
Polyester resin tends to have yellowish tint, and is suitable for most backyard projects. Its weaknesses are that it is UV sensitive and can tend to degrade over time, and thus generally is also coated to help preserve it. It is often used in the making of surfboards and for marine applications. Its hardener is a MEKP, and is mixed at 14 drops per oz. MEKP is composed of methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, a catalyst. When MEKP is mixed with the resin, the resulting chemical reaction causes heat to build up and cure or harden the resin.
Vinylester resin tends to have a purplish to bluish to greenish tint. This resin has lower viscosity than polyester resin, and is more transparent. This resin is often billed as being fuel resistant, but will melt in contact with gasoline. This resin tends to be more resistant over time to degradation than polyester resin, and is more flexible. It uses the same hardener as polyester resin (at the same mix ratio) and the cost is approximately the same.
Epoxy resin is almost totally transparent when cured. In the aerospace industry, epoxy is used as a structural matrix material or as a structural glue.
Shape memory polymer (SMP) resins have varying visual characteristics depending on their formulation. These resins may be epoxy-based, which can be used for auto body and outdoor equipment repairs; cyanate-ester-based, which are used in space applications; and acrylate-based, which can be used in very cold temperature applications, such as for sensors that indicate whether perishable goods have warmed above a certain maximum temperature. These resins are unique in that their shape can be repeatedly changed by heating above their glass transition temperature (Tg). When heated, they become flexible and elastic, allowing for easy configuration. Once they are cooled, they will maintain their new shape. The resins will return to their original shapes when they are reheated above their Tg. The advantage of shape memory polymer resins is that they can be shaped and reshaped repeatedly without losing their material properties, and these resins can be used in fabricating shape memory composites.
Fiber-reinforced composite materials can be divided into two main categories normally referred to as short fiber-reinforced materials and continuous fiber-reinforced materials. Continuous reinforced materials will often constitute a layered or laminated structure. The woven and continuous fibre styles are typically available in a variety of forms, being pre-impregnated with the given matrix (resin), dry, uni-directional tapes of various widths, plain weave, harness satins, braided, and stitched.
The short and long fibers are typically employed in compression moulding and sheet moulding operations. These come in the form of flakes, chips, and random mate (which can also be made from a continuous fibre laid in random fashion until the desired thickness of the ply / laminate is achieved).
In general, the reinforcing and matrix materials are combined, compacted and processed to undergo a melding event. After the melding event, the part shape is essentially set, although it can deform under certain process conditions. For a thermoset polymeric matrix material, the melding event is a curing reaction that is initiated by the application of additional heat or chemical reactivity such as an organic peroxide. For a thermoplastic polymeric matrix material, the melding event is a solidification from the melted state. For a metal matrix material such as titanium foil, the melding event is a fusing at high pressure and a temperature near the melt point.
For many moulding methods, it is convenient to refer to one mould piece as a "lower" mould and another mould piece as an "upper" mould. Lower and upper refer to the different faces of the moulded panel, not the mould's configuration in space. In this convention, there is always a lower mould, and sometimes an upper mould. Part construction begins by applying materials to the lower mould. Lower mould and upper mould are more generalized descriptors than more common and specific terms such as male side, female side, a-side, b-side, tool side, bowl, hat, mandrel, etc. Continuous manufacturing processes use a different nomenclature.
The moulded product is often referred to as a panel. For certain geometries and material combinations, it can be referred to as a casting. For certain continuous processes, it can be referred to as a profile. Applied with a pressure roller, a spray device or manually. This process is generally done at ambient temperature and atmospheric pressure. Two variations of open moulding are Hand Layup and Spray-up.
A process using a two-sided mould set that shapes both surfaces of the panel. On the lower side is a rigid mould and on the upper side is a flexible membrane or vacuum bag. The flexible membrane can be a reusable silicone material or an extruded polymer film. Then, vacuum is applied to the mould cavity. This process can be performed at either ambient or elevated temperature with ambient atmospheric pressure acting upon the vacuum bag. Most economical way is using a venturi vacuum and air compressor or a vacuum pump.
A vacuum bag is a bag made of strong rubber-coated fabric or a polymer film used to bond or laminate materials. In some applications the bag encloses the entire material, or in other applications a mold is used to form one face of the laminate with the bag being single sided to seal the outer face of the laminate to the mold. The open end is sealed and the air is drawn out of the bag through a nipple using a vacuum pump. As a result, uniform pressure approaching one atmosphere is applied to the surfaces of the object inside the bag, holding parts together while the adhesive cures. The entire bag may be placed in a temperature-controlled oven, oil bath or water bath and gently heated to accelerate curing.
In commercial woodworking facilities vacuum bags are used to laminate curved and irregular shaped workpieces.
Vacuum bagging is widely used in the composites industry as well. Carbon fiber fabric and fiberglass, along with resins and epoxies are common materials laminated together with a vacuum bag operation.
Typically, polyurethane or vinyl materials are used to make the bag, which is commonly open at both ends. This gives access to the piece, or pieces to be glued. A plastic rod is laid onto the bag, which is then folded over the rod. A plastic sleeve with an opening in it, is then snapped over the rod. This procedure forms a seal at both ends of the bag, when the vacuum is ready to be drawn.
A "platen" is used inside the bag for the piece being glued to lay on. The platen has a series of small slots cut into it, to allow the air under it to be evacuated. The platen must have rounded edges and corners to prevent the vacuum from tearing the bag.
When a curved part is to be glued in a vacuum bag, it is important that the pieces being glued be placed over a solidly built form, or have an air bladder placed under the form. This air bladder has access to "free air" outside the bag. It is used to create an equal pressure under the form, preventing it from being crushed.
This process is related to vacuum bag moulding in exactly the same way as it sounds. A solid female mould is used along with a flexible male mould. The reinforcement is placed inside the female mould with just enough resin to allow the fabric to stick in place (wet lay up). A measured amount of resin is then liberally brushed indiscriminately into the mould and the mould is then clamped to a machine that contains the male flexible mould. The flexible male membrane is then inflated with heated compressed air or possibly steam. The female mould can also be heated. Excess resin is forced out along with trapped air. This process is extensively used in the production of composite helmets due to the lower cost of unskilled labor. Cycle times for a helmet bag moulding machine vary from 20 to 45 minutes, but the finished shells require no further curing if the moulds are heated.
A process using a two-sided mould set that forms both surfaces of the panel. On the lower side is a rigid mould and on the upper side is a flexible membrane made from silicone or an extruded polymer film such as nylon. Reinforcement materials can be placed manually or robotically. They include continuous fibre forms fashioned into textile constructions. Most often, they are pre-impregnated with the resin in the form of prepreg fabrics or unidirectional tapes. In some instances, a resin film is placed upon the lower mould and dry reinforcement is placed above. The upper mould is installed and vacuum is applied to the mould cavity. The assembly is placed into an autoclave. This process is generally performed at both elevated pressure and elevated temperature. The use of elevated pressure facilitates a high fibre volume fraction and low void content for maximum structural efficiency.
A process using a two-sided mould set that forms both surfaces of the panel. The lower side is a rigid mould. The upper side can be a rigid or flexible mould. Flexible moulds can be made from composite materials, silicone or extruded polymer films such as nylon. The two sides fit together to produce a mould cavity. The distinguishing feature of resin transfer moulding is that the reinforcement materials are placed into this cavity and the mould set is closed prior to the introduction of matrix material. Resin transfer moulding includes numerous varieties which differ in the mechanics of how the resin is introduced to the reinforcement in the mould cavity. These variations include everything from vacuum infusion (for resin infusion see also boat building) to vacuum assisted resin transfer moulding (VARTM). This process can be performed at either ambient or elevated temperature.
Other types of moulding include press moulding, transfer moulding, pultrusion moulding, filament winding, casting, centrifugal casting, continuous casting and slip forming. There are also forming capabilities including CNC filament winding, vacuum infusion, wet lay-up, compression moulding, and thermoplastic moulding, to name a few. The use of curing ovens and paint booths is also needed for some projects.
Some types of tooling materials used in the manufacturing of composites structures include invar, steel, aluminium, reinforced silicone rubber, nickel, and carbon fiber. Selection of the tooling material is typically based on, but not limited to, the coefficient of thermal expansion, expected number of cycles, end item tolerance, desired or required surface condition, method of cure, glass transition temperature of the material being moulded, moulding method, matrix, cost and a variety of other considerations.
The physical properties of composite materials are generally not isotropic (independent of direction of applied force) in nature, but rather are typically anisotropic (different depending on the direction of the applied force or load). For instance, the stiffness of a composite panel will often depend upon the orientation of the applied forces and/or moments. Panel stiffness is also dependent on the design of the panel. For instance, the fibre reinforcement and matrix used, the method of panel build, thermoset versus thermoplastic, type of weave, and orientation of fibre axis to the primary force.
In contrast, isotropic materials (for example, aluminium or steel), in standard wrought forms, typically have the same stiffness regardless of the directional orientation of the applied forces and/or moments.
The relationship between forces/moments and strains/curvatures for an isotropic material can be described with the following material properties: Young's Modulus, the shear Modulus and the Poisson's ratio, in relatively simple mathematical relationships. For the anisotropic material, it requires the mathematics of a second order tensor and up to 21 material property constants. For the special case of orthogonal isotropy, there are three different material property constants for each of Young's Modulus, Shear Modulus and Poisson's ratio—a total of 9 constants to describe the relationship between forces/moments and strains/curvatures.
Techniques that take advantage of the anisotropic properties of the materials include mortise and tenon joints (in natural composites such as wood) and Pi Joints in synthetic composites.
Shock, impact, or repeated cyclic stresses can cause the laminate to separate at the interface between two layers, a condition known as delamination. Individual fibres can separate from the matrix e.g. fibre pull-out.
Composites can fail on the microscopic or macroscopic scale. Compression failures can occur at both the macro scale or at each individual reinforcing fibre in compression buckling. Tension failures can be net section failures of the part or degradation of the composite at a microscopic scale where one or more of the layers in the composite fail in tension of the matrix or failure the bond between the matrix and fibres.
Some composites are brittle and have little reserve strength beyond the initial onset of failure while others may have large deformations and have reserve energy absorbing capacity past the onset of damage. The variations in fibres and matrices that are available and the mixtures that can be made with blends leave a very broad range of properties that can be designed into a composite structure.The best known failure of a brittle ceramic matrix composite occurred when the carbon-carbon composite tile on the leading edge of the wing of the Space Shuttle Columbia fractured when impacted during take-off. It led to catastrophic break-up of the vehicle when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 1 February 2003.
Compared to metals, composites have relatively poor bearing strength.
To aid in predicting and preventing failures, composites are tested before and after construction. Pre-construction testing may use finite element analysis (FEA) for ply-by-ply analysis of curved surfaces and predicting wrinkling, crimping and dimpling of composites. Materials may be tested after construction through several nondestructive methods including ultrasonics, thermography, shearography and X-ray radiography
Fibre-reinforced polymers or FRPs include wood (comprising cellulose fibres in a lignin and hemicellulose matrix), carbon-fibre reinforced plastic or CFRP, and glass-reinforced plastic or GRP. If classified by matrix then there are thermoplastic composites, short fibre thermoplastics, long fibre thermoplastics or long fibre-reinforced thermoplastics. There are numerous thermoset composites, but advanced systems usually incorporate aramid fibre and carbon fibre in an epoxy resin matrix.
Shape memory polymer composites are high-performance composites, formulated using fibre or fabric reinforcement and shape memory polymer resin as the matrix. Since a shape memory polymer resin is used as the matrix, these composites have the ability to be easily manipulated into various configurations when they are heated above their activation temperatures and will exhibit high strength and stiffness at lower temperatures. They can also be reheated and reshaped repeatedly without losing their material properties. These composites are ideal for applications such as lightweight, rigid, deployable structures; rapid manufacturing; and dynamic reinforcement.
Concrete is probably the most common artificial composite material of all and typically consists of loose stones (aggregate) held with a matrix of cement. Concrete is a very robust material, much more robust than cement, however concrete cannot survive tensile loading. Therefore metal cables are often added to tension the concrete to form reinforced concrete.
Composites can also use metal fibres reinforcing other metals, as in metal matrix composites or MMC. The benefit of magnesium is that it does not degrade in outer space. Ceramic matrix composites include bone (hydroxyapatite reinforced with collagen fibres), Cermet (ceramic and metal) and concrete. Ceramic matrix composites are built primarily for fracture toughness, not for strength.Organic matrix/ceramic aggregate composites include asphalt concrete, mastic asphalt, mastic roller hybrid, dental composite, syntactic foam and mother of pearl. Chobham armour is a special type of composite armour used in military applications.
Additionally, thermoplastic composite materials can be formulated with specific metal powders resulting in materials with a density range from 2 g/cm³ to 11 g/cm³ (same density as lead). The most common name for this type of material is High Gravity Compound (HGC), although Lead Replacement is also used. These materials can be used in place of traditional materials such as aluminium, stainless steel, brass, bronze, copper, lead, and even tungsten in weighting, balancing (for example, modifying the centre of gravity of a tennis racquet), vibration damping, and radiation shielding applications. High density composites are an economically viable option when certain materials are deemed hazardous and are banned (such as lead) or when secondary operations costs (such as machining, finishing, or coating) are a factor.
Engineered wood includes a wide variety of different products such as wood fibre board, plywood, oriented strand board, wood plastic composite (recycled wood fibre in polyethylene matrix), Pykrete (sawdust in ice matrix), Plastic-impregnated or laminated paper or textiles, Arborite, Formica (plastic) and Micarta. Other engineered laminate composites, such as Mallite, use a central core of end grain balsa wood, bonded to surface skins of light alloy or GRP. These generate low-weight, high rigidity materials.
Fiber-reinforced composite materials have gained popularity (despite their generally high cost) in high-performance products that need to be lightweight, yet strong enough to take harsh loading conditions such as aerospace components (tails, wings, fuselages, propellers), boat and scull hulls, bicycle frames and racing car bodies. Other uses include fishing rods, storage tanks, and baseball bats. The new Boeing 787 structure including the wings and fuselage is composed largely of composites. Composite materials are also becoming more common in the realm of orthopedic surgery.
Carbon composite is a key material in today's launch vehicles and heat shields for the re-entry phase of spacecraft. It is widely used in solar panel substrates, antenna reflectors and yokes of spacecraft. It is also used in payload adapters, inter-stage structures and heat shields of launch vehicles. Furthermore disk brake systems of airplanes and racing cars are using carbon/carbon material, and the composite material with carbon fibers and silicon carbide matrix has been introduced in luxury vehicles and sports cars.
In 2007, an all-composite military Humvee was introduced by TPI Composites Inc and Armor Holdings Inc, the first all-composite military vehicle. By using composites the vehicle is lighter, allowing higher payloads. In 2008, carbon fiber and DuPont Kevlar (five times stronger than steel) were combined with enhanced thermoset resins to make military transit cases by ECS Composites creating 30-percent lighter cases with high strength.
Many composite layup designs also include a co-curing or post-curing of the prepreg with various other mediums, such as honeycomb or foam. This is commonly called a sandwich structure. This is a more common layup process for the manufacture of radomes, doors, cowlings, or non-structural parts.
The finishing of the composite parts is also critical in the final design. Many of these finishes will include rain-erosion coatings or polyurethane coatings.
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