Honeycomb Cores

Honeycomb cores range from paper and card for low strength and stiffness, low load applications (such as domestic internal doors) to high strength and stiffness, extremely lightweight components for aircraft structures. Honeycombs can be processed into both flat and curved composite structures, and can be made to conform to compound curves without excessive mechanical force or heating.

Thermoplastic honeycombs are usually produced by extrusion, followed by slicing to thickness. Other honeycombs (such as those made of paper and aluminium) are made by a multi-stage process. In these cases large thin sheets of the material (usually 1.2x2.4m) are printed with alternating, parallel, thin stripes of adhesive and the sheets are then stacked in a heated press while the adhesive cures. In the case of aluminium honeycomb the stack of sheets is then sliced through its thickness. The slices (known as 'block form') are later gently stretched and expanded to form the sheet of continuous hexagonal cell shapes.

In the case of paper honeycombs, the stack of bonded paper sheets is gently expanded to form a large block of honeycomb, several feet thick. Held in its expanded form, this fragile paper honeycomb block is then dipped in a tank of resin, drained and cured in an oven. Once this dipping resin has cured, the block has sufficient strength to be sliced into the final thicknesses required.

In both cases, by varying the degree of pull in the expansion process, regular hexagon-shaped cells or over-expanded (elongated) cells can be produced, each with different mechanical and handling/drape properties. Due to this bonded method of construction, a honeycomb will have different mechanical properties in the 0° and 90° directions of the sheet.

While skins are usually of FRP, they may be almost any sheet material with the appropriate properties, including wood, thermoplastics (eg melamine) and sheet metals, such as aluminium or steel. The cells of the honeycomb structure can also be filled with a rigid foam. This provides a greater bond area for the skins, increases the mechanical properties of the core by stabilising the cell walls and increases thermal and acoustic insulation properties.

Properties of honeycomb materials depend on the size (and therefore frequency) of the cells and the thickness and strength of the web material. Sheets can range from typically 3-50 mm in thickness and panel dimensions are typically 1200 x 2400mm, although it is possible to produce sheets up to 3m x 3m.

Honeycomb cores can give stiff and very light laminates but due to their very small bonding area they are almost exclusively used with high-performance resin systems such as epoxies so that the necessary adhesion to the laminate skins can be achieved.

Aluminium honeycomb

Aluminium honeycomb produces one of the highest strength/weight ratios of any structural material. There are various configurations of the adhesive bonding of the aluminium foil which can lead to a variety of geometric cell shapes (usually hexagonal). Properties can also be controlled by varying the foil thickness and cell size. The honeycomb is usually supplied in the unexpanded block form and is stretched out into a sheet on-site.

Despite its good mechanical properties and relatively low price, aluminium honeycomb has to be used with caution in some applications, such as large marine structures, because of the potential corrosion problems in a salt-water environment. In this situation care also has to be exercised to ensure that the honeycomb does not come into direct contact with carbon skins since the conductivity can aggravate galvanic corrosion. Aluminium honeycomb also has the problem that it has no 'mechanical memory'. On impact of a cored laminate, the honeycomb will deform irreversibly whereas the FRP skins, being resilient, will move back to their original position. This can result in an area with an unbonded skin with much reduced mechanical properties.

Nomex honeycomb

Nomex honeycomb is made from Nomex paper - a form of paper based on Kevlar, rather than cellulose fibres. The initial paper honeycomb is usually dipped in a phenolic resin to produce a honeycomb core with high strength and very good fire resistance. It is widely used for lightweight interior panels for aircraft in conjunction with phenolic resins in the skins. Special grades for use in fire retardant applications (eg public transport interiors) can also be made which have the honeycomb cells filled with phenolic foam for added bond area and insulation.

Nomex honeycomb is becoming increasingly used in high-performance non-aerospace components due to its high mechanical properties, low density and good long-term stability. However, it is considerably more expensive than other core materials.

Thermoplastic honeycomb

Core materials made of other thermoplastics are light in weight, offering some useful properties and possibly also making for easier recycling.

Their main disadvantage is the difficulty of achieving a good interfacial bond between the honeycomb and the skin.

  • ABS - for rigidity, impact strength, toughness, surface hardness and dimensional stability
  • Polycarbonate - for UV-stability, excellent light transmission, good heat resistance & self-extinguishing properties
  • Polypropylene - for good chemical resistance
  • Polyethylene - a general-purpose low-cost core material

Published courtesy of David Cripps, Gurit