Published: 28 September 2016

Teaching old technology new tricks in aerospace composites

A collaboration between the Universities of Surrey and Bristol and aerospace company Bombardier has developed a new technology which could enhance the electrical conductivity and physical properties of conventional aerospace materials.

The research, conducted by researchers in Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and the University of Bristol’s Advanced Composite Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS), was published in ‘Composites Part A: Applied Science and Manufacturing’ in July 2016. The Surrey research team consisted of lead researcher Dr Thomas Pozegic and Dr Ian Hamerton (who are now both at the University of Bristol), and Professor Ravi Silva, Director of the ATI.

Incorporating carbon nanotubes in composites (carbon fibres in plastic) can bring significant benefits to the aerospace industry where metallic structures are relied on to enhance electrical conductivity – for examples as one of the measures used to protect aircraft from lightning strikes.

The published research shows that the carbon nanotubes can be incorporated by replacing a key component of the composite, called the ‘sizing’, which is typically used to improve the mechanical properties and manufacturing of the composite. Interestingly, the carbon nanotubes have been shown to not only match the properties of the sizing but to improve on them. Furthermore, the carbon nanotubes make electrical connections with the carbon fibre, enhancing the overall electrical conductivity of the composite.

Dr Thomas Pozegic explained, “The carbon nanotubes on the carbon fibre are grown at a very high density – 10 billion per cm2 - substantially increasing the surface area of the carbon fibre. Effectively, the carbon fibres have more area to ‘hold on to’ in the plastic, improving key mechanical properties. In addition, these carbon nanotubes entangle with each other, helping the fibres to stay together, aiding manufacturing of the composite, another important function of the sizing.”

Professor Ravi Silva said, “An industry-academia collaboration such as this shows how the wealth of knowledge within Universities can be efficiently transferred within a suitable framework to industry to solve very specific problems. We look forward to increasing the uses of our unique carbon nanotube growth process that now includes graphene growth at low temperatures.”

Dr Hamerton commented, “While the research was conducted with the aerospace and transportation industries in mind, the technology is potentially applicable to all sectors of the composites industry including automotive, wind turbines, transport, space and construction. We are now seeking industrial partners to develop the materials further. The next stage of research will involve optimising the carbon nanotubes for composite applications and scaling the technology and the burgeoning collaboration between the Universities of Surrey and Bristol, and the National Composites Centre is a key enabler in this.”

The paper, ‘Development of sizing-free multi-functional carbon fibre nanocomposites’ was published in Composites Part A: Applied Science and Manufacturing on 18th July.

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