Composite material

Composite materials (or composites for short) are engineered materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties and which remain separate and distinct on a macroscopic level within the finished structure.

A composite is a material which is made up of two or more distinct (i.e. macroscopic, not microscopic) materials. A familiar composite is concrete, which is basically made up of sand and cement. Many common materials could be classed as composites, but this website is concerned with fibre reinforced polymer composites.

Polymer composites are plastics within which there are embedded fibres or particles. The plastic is known as the matrix, and the fibres or particles, dispersed within it, are known as the reinforcement.

The reinforcement is usually stiffer than the matrix, thus stiffening the composite material. This stiffer reinforcement will usually be laid in a particular direction, within the matrix, so that the resulting material will have different properties in different directions. This characteristic is usually exploited to optimise the design.

Polymer matrix composites (PMCs) are materials that use a polymer based resin as a matrix material with some form of fibres embedded in the matrix, as a reinforcement. Both thermosetting and thermoplastic polymers can be used for the matrix material. Common polymer composite thermosetting matrix materials include polyester, vinyl ester and epoxy. Polymer composite thermoplastic matrix materials include PEEK, PEI and PPS. Reinforcements include glass, carbonand aramid fibres.

USe of Polymer Composites
There can be many secondary reasons why polymer composites may be chosen for the manufacture of particular articles or components, but the primary reason is because of weight saving for their relative stiffness and strength. As an example we can compare a carbon fibre reinforced composite with its steel counterpart. The carbon fibre composite can be five times stronger than 1020 grade steel while having only one fifth the weight. Aluminium (6061 grade) is much nearer in weight to carbon fibre composite (though still somewhat heavier), but the composite can have twice the modulus and up to seven times the strength.

Polymeric composites are one class of engineering material. As with all other engineering materials, they have particular strengths and particular weaknesses. The matrix protects the strong stiff fibres and together the composite material improves on the properties of either the matrix material or the fibres alone. A major driving force behind the development of composites has been to produce materials with improved specific mechanical properties over existing materials. Specific stiffness can be defined as the stiffness of a material divided by the density of material and specific strength can be defined as the strength of a material divided by the density of the material. It is these good specific properties of composites that allow the design of high performance structural components. Polymer composite material structures can also be engineered so that the directionality of the reinforcement material is arranged so as to match the loading on a given component or structure. In addition, polymer composites are useful in applications where the environment would be detrimental to other materials. A wide selection of resins and coatings are available to match appropriate environmental conditions. Cost is ever present in the engineering equation and it is the balance of cost and performance that determine whether or not to use polymer composites over an alternative structural material option.

Can Polymers replace metals

Many metal articles or components can instead be made from composites, but there are important differences which mean that direct substitution should be made with care.

Most engineering materials are essentially isotropic. That is, they have the same properties such as strength and modulus, in any direction. There may be 'grain' in some metals due to the manufacturing process, but it is only in critical applications that this matters. Most machining or casting processes do not have to take directional differences into account.

Most composites will have very different properties in different directions. This is because, although the matrix material is isotropic, the reinforcement is not. Carbon fibres may be up to 100 times stronger under tension than they are in shear, and the stiffness may differ in the two directions by similar ratios. The properties of the composite will reflect the properties of the reinforcement, so that it can have greatly different properties in different directions. This is exploited in design as manufactured articles rarely require to be equally strong in all directions, and composites can achieve this by particular arrangements of the reinforcement. However, a different design procedure is required for composites compared to that required for metals.

Polymer composites can be classified according to the type of MATRIX material, and the type of REINFORCEMENT material.

Because the size of the reinforcement particles, or the type and length of the fibres can be varied, and because the directions in which they can be placed within the matrix can be varied, a very wide variety of properties can be achieved. Where necessary the composite can have different properties in different directions.

When we include the possibility of changing the matrix material, it can be seen that polymer composites form a vast family of engineering materials.

The most primitive composite materials comprised straw and mud in the form of bricks for building construction; the Biblical book of Exodus speaks of the Israelites being oppressed by Pharaoh, by being forced to make bricks without straw being provided. The ancient brick-making process can still be seen on Egyptian tomb paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The most advanced examples perform routinely on spacecraft in demanding environments. The most visible applications pave our roadways in the form of either steel and aggregate reinforced portland cement or asphalt concrete. Those composites closest to our personal hygiene form our shower stalls and bath tubs made of fiberglass. Solid surface, imitation granite and cultured marble sinks and counter tops are widely used to enhance our living experiences.

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 mold cavity or onto the mold 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 molding 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 labor and tooling costs at a correspondingly slower rate. Most 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 fibers 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 hand 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, so this increase in fibre content results in a dramatically stronger product.

Moulding methods

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 molding methods, it is convenient to refer to one mold piece as a "lower" mold and another mold piece as an "upper" mold. Lower and upper refer to the different faces of the molded panel, not the mold's configuration in space. In this convention, there is always a lower mold, and sometimes an upper mold. Part construction begins by applying materials to the lower mold. Lower mold and upper mold 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 molded 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.

Open moulding

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.

Vacuum bag moulding

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.

Pressure bag moulding

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 place inside the female mould with just enough resin to allow the fabric to stick in place. 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.

Autoclave moulding

A process using a two-sided mold set that forms both surfaces of the panel. On the lower side is a rigid mold 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 fiber 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 mold and dry reinforcement is placed above. The upper mold is installed and vacuum is applied to the mold cavity. The assembly is placed into an autoclave pressure vessel. This process is generally performed at both elevated pressure and elevated temperature. The use of elevated pressure facilitates a high fiber volume fraction and low void content for maximum structural efficiency.

Resin transfer moulding (RTM)

A process using a two-sided mold set that forms both surfaces of the panel. The lower side is a rigid mold. The upper side can be a rigid or flexible mold. Flexible molds can be made from composite materials, silicone or extruded polymer films such as nylon. The two sides fit together to produce a mold cavity. The distinguishing feature of resin transfer molding is that the reinforcement materials are placed into this cavity and the mold set is closed prior to the introduction of matrix material. Resin transfer molding includes numerous varieties which differ in the mechanics of how the resin is introduced to the reinforcement in the mold cavity. These variations include everything from vacuum infusion (see also resin infusion) to vacuum assisted resin transfer molding. This process can be performed at either ambient or elevated temperature.


Other types of molding include press molding, transfer molding, pultrusion molding, filament winding, casting, centrifugal casting and continuous casting.

Some types of tooling materials used in the manufacturing of composites structures include invar, steel, aluminum, reinforced silicon rubber, nickle, 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 molded, molding 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 orthotropic (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 fiber reinforcement and matrix used, the method of panel build, thermoset versus thermoplastic, type of weave, and orientation of fiber 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.

Failure of 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 fibers can separate from the matrix e.g. fiber 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 fiber 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 fibers.

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 fibers 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 occurred when the carbon-fiber 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 February 1, 2003.

To aid in predicting and preventing failures, composites are tested before construction using computer aided engineering tools such as Nastran FEA (finite element analysis). Engineers conduct structural, dynamic and thermal analysis based on strength, stiffness, ply layup, ply orientation and mold lines. FEA software NEi Nastran by NEi Software is used for ply-by-ply analysis of curved surfaces and predicting wrinkling, crimping and dimpling of composites.

Examples of composite materials

Fiber reinforced polymers or FRPs include wood (comprising cellulose fibers in a lignin and hemicellulose matrix), carbon-fiber reinforced plastic or CFRP, and glass reinforced plastic or GRP. If classified by matrix then there are thermoplastic composites, short fiber thermoplastics, long fiber thermoplastics or long fiber reinforced thermoplastics. There are numerous thermosetaramid fibre and carbon fibre in an epoxy resin matrix. composites, but advanced systems usually incorporate

Composites can also use metal fibres reinforcing other metals, as in metal matrix composites or MMC. Magnesium is often used in MMCs because it has similar mechanical properties as epoxy. The benefit of magnesium is that it does not degrade in outer space. Ceramic matrix composites include bone (hydroxyapatite reinforced with collagen fibers), Cermet (ceramic and metal) and concrete. Ceramic matrix composites are built primarily for 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 composite 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/cc to 11 g/cc (same density as lead). These materials can be used in place of traditional materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, brass, bronze, copper, lead, and even tungsten in weighting, balancing, vibration dampening, 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 plywood, oriented strand board, wood plastic composite (recycled wood fiber 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.