3 Reasons High-Tech Composites Are Replacing Traditional Materials

Emily Newton
on December 16, 2021
Hands of young female worker of large contemporary polymer processing factory holding pile of unprocessed white plastic pellets

Numerous science and engineering-based advancements have led to conclusions that the properties of composite materials are often superior to more traditional choices. Here are some of the advantages that make them so promising. 

1. Improving Sustainability

Global focus is on urgent matters like climate change and excessive waste production. People are increasingly concerned with developing sustainable materials to replace those that will likely get discarded more frequently. Many eco-friendly composite materials can fill the need. 

Repairable Carbon-Fiber Components to Lengthen Usable Life Spans

Carbon-fiber composites are popular alternatives to replace conventional metals used for everything from airplane parts to golf clubs. However, most of them are virtually impossible to fix or recycle once they break.  

A new advancement by researchers at the University of Washington could overcome that downside. The team created a new material as light and strong as conventional carbon-fiber composites but easy to repair if it cracks. People can repeatedly fix the damage traditionally or with radio-frequency-based heating. 

The material is within a relatively new category called carbon-fiber-reinforced vitrimers (vCFRP). Other types of carbon-fiber composites fall into two primary groups. The first type contains epoxy, which gives a permanent hardness. Those in the second category feature a softer glue that allows breaking the material down for rework, though at the expense of reduced strength and rigidity. However, vCFRPs allow linking, unlinking and relinking without such compromises.

Carbon-Fiber Component for a Car’s Interior Cut Emissions

In another case of enhanced sustainability from carbon-fiber composite advancements, a Swiss company replaced nine interior components of vehicles typically used in motorsports with a more sustainable composite material made of natural fiber. This caused a 94% reduction in material emissions and slashed the cradle-to-gate emissions by 90%. 

Carbon fiber trim control panel on car door

Another advantage of composite materials is they can surpass their original properties, such as reclaimed wood treated for heat resistance. That means people may be surprised as they learn more about how composites could change the characteristics of common materials hey thought they knew well. 

These are some of the many examples of how these futuristic composite materials could contribute to the worldwide effort in improving sustainability. Business leaders could even use them as selling points to show that environmental sustainability runs throughout company operations. For example, wind turbine manufacturers that use them prioritize prolonged resilience over prematurely sending items to landfills. 

2. Enhancing Essential Processes

People who work with composite materials often investigate how they could help users improve their processes. For example, composite screws are common choices for assembling decking because they’re typically denser than traditional wood versions. They also have finer threads and comparatively smaller heads, making them easier to drive into decking. 

Improving screws can save on labor costs and increase the chances of obtaining great results, and this is just one example. Ways to strengthen an existing process could become apparent at virtually any stage, from designing a product to putting it through quality checks. 

Robots Assist With Composite Fan Blade Production

Much of the ongoing work associated with composite materials concerns futuristic approaches, like applying robotics and machine learning to development efforts. 

For example, Rolls-Royce has a new dedicated facility for developing new composite materials. One of the approaches there concerns using robots to help make composite fan blades used in jet engines. 

Carbon-fibre composite material is layered onto a fan case mould

Carbon-fibre composite material is layered onto a fan case mould

Each component has approximately 500 layers of carbon-fiber material, each applied in a fully automated process supervised by factory workers. Robots lift and move the parts between assembly line stations, ensuring a smooth, efficient operation. 

Machine Learning Could Improve Composite Testing

Researchers also hope to use machine learning to make progress with the methods usually applied to test composite materials for flaws. The most popular traditional methods are X-ray and ultrasound-based tests. However, both of those have their downsides, spurring researchers to address the limitations. 

Russell Varley is a professor of composite materials at Carbon Nexus, a manufacturing research facility in Australia. He said, “Understanding and developing next-generation analysis methods for nondestructive testing of composite products has great potential to transform the industry.”

An organization awarded a research grant for this project to see if machine learning could target some well-known composite testing issues. For example, using X-ray-based methods is cost-intensive in capital and operational investments. 

These case studies do not imply that people have stopped trying to improve processes associated with traditional materials. However, an ongoing high interest in composites from materials specialists worldwide causes much of the research to focus on newer options made from at least two constituent materials. 

High-Tech Composites Change Colors to Display Flaws

The two previous examples in this section highlight how composite materials often align with efforts to embrace Industry 4.0. However, there’s also fascinating work in making the materials themselves accelerate factory processes. 

Researchers developed a composite laminate that changes colors in response to deformation. They believe this will allow detecting problems at earlier stages and alert people to possible material failures. People have so far only used the material in the lab. However, if it works as well as the developers hope it will, the innovation could improve processes in numerous ways. 

For example, it could prevent workers from manufacturing composite pieces with internal weaknesses and minimize future recalls. The team also reported that their new material, comprised of layers, is break-resistant and lightweight. Since those are among the most desirable properties of composites, this invention could have broad applications and appeal.

3. Furthering Material-Based Improvements

Another one of the advantages of composite materials is that they enable engineers and scientists to develop new options that meet needs not addressed by conventional choices. People are always looking for feasible ways to improve products. Composites often show the way forward. 

New Composite Material Made From Nonwoven Fabrics

Nonwoven fabrics are those derived from bonding fiber that does not require knitting or weaving. Researchers recently created a new composite material that falls into this category. They believe their innovation could be ideal for medical products, such as bandages and masks. 

Creating a material that may be in contact with people’s skin for hours at a time or more requires thinking carefully about the desired properties of composite materials. In this case, the team wanted breathability and water absorbency. They also wanted to include cotton for comfort. 

Tests showed that the new fabric was more absorbent than traditional options. It also performed well in stretch-recovery tests, suggesting the material would hold up well to repeated use. The team acknowledged that although other options have good breathability and stretch capabilities, the choice to add cotton should provide another noticeable benefit. 

High Tech Material Could Limit the Hassle of Cracked Phone Screens

Since screens are such necessary parts of today’s smartphones, many people take great pains to protect them. For example, even when manufacturers install ultra-durable glass, many smartphone owners also add screen protectors or insert their devices into specialty cases for extra peace of mind. However, an innovation related to composite glass could reduce the need for those additional steps. 

modern smartphone with cracked screen in one corner, isolated on white background

An international research team’s project resulted in a glass composite that could minimize screen breakage plus provide a brighter display. The materials are based on lead halide perovskites, which work like miniature solar panels because they catch and store energy. The basic approach is to wrap nanocrystals into a porous glass. 

That method should improve current nanocrystal technologies used for device screens. The group working on this project cautioned that, while they believe their techniques are scalable, there’s still a lot of work to do. They need to figure out the best ways to create materials with the desired properties.

High-Tech Materials Show Plenty of Promise

These are just some of the many advantages of composite materials that get people excited about what the future holds. Traditional materials still have a place in numerous instances, but these examples show the benefits of working with composites to generate specific results.

Emily Newton, Revolutionized

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist with over four years of experience. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she regularly covers this industry and how technology contributes to its evolution.


*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

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