Oak Ridge Research Could Lead to Better Aerospace Composites


Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are known for their contributions to technological innovation. We are especially appreciative of the work they do in developing better aerospace composites technologies. A case in point is a new project we just learned about thanks to a paper Oak Ridge scientists published in the Advanced Science journal.

According to the paper, the scientists have developed a new method of reinforcing polymer composite materials used in a variety of industries. The method is especially important to composites in aerospace applications, given how tough and resilient such composites need to be. From what we can tell, the Oak Ridge process is impressive. Now it is a matter of scaling it up and implementing it for routine use.

Strong and Resilient Materials

The composites utilized in aerospace applications are already strong and resilient. They have a high strength-to-weight ratio, resist both corrosion and fatigue, and can be customized to meet a variety of performance requirements. Best of all, composites are lightweight.

The other side of the coin is that composite materials are susceptible to stress damage. Remember that aerospace composites are materials that are made from two or more diverse source materials that would not work well together outside of composite manufacturing. Normally, that means rigid fibers and a soft resin matrix.

The interphase between the two is the weakest link in the proverbial chain. If we can improve this interphase, we can also improve the overall structural integrity and mechanical properties of a composite material. This is exactly what Oak Ridge researchers have been working on. What they have learned could prove to be a significant advancement in aerospace composite technology.

An Innovative Supportive Network

So what did the Oak Ridge team do? They developed an innovative hierarchical support network using thermoplastic nanofibers distributed like cobwebs throughout a traditional composite material. The nanofibers created a high-surface-area scaffolding that helped carry stress loads as they passed between the rigid fibers and resin matrix.

Although traditional coating and scaffolding technologies do much the same thing in theory, the Oak Ridge method does it better. According to researchers, they were able to increase the strength of the tested composites by nearly 60%. They increased durability by 100%.

Best of all, the researchers say that their process is easily scaled, simple to implement, and comparatively inexpensive. If what they are claiming is true, we could see stronger composites for aerospace applications without complicating manufacturing processes or adding to the cost.

It’s What Makes Aerospace Composites Better

We take great pride in being innovators here at Aerodine. So when we run across innovations like the project Oak Ridge scientists have been working on, we are thrilled. Innovation is what makes aerospace composites better. It is that which drives our industry forward to new heights and endless possibilities.

Oak Ridge will take what they have learned from this project and put it into researching different fiber and matrix combinations that could make their nanofibers perform even better. And of course, they will be looking into other nanofiber materials in hopes of finding a few that offer better performance.

All of this is made possible by the federal government’s Composite Core Program 2.0. While the main thrust of the program is to improve composites for automotive applications, the work researchers are doing will go a long way toward developing new aerospace composite technologies.

We will be keeping an eye on any further work Oak Ridge does on this project. Once it is ready to be applied commercially, you can bet composites manufacturers will be all over it.

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