Polymer Composites

Resin systems such as epoxies and polyesters have limited use for the manufacture of structures on their own, since their mechanical properties are not very high when compared to, for example, most metals. 

Materials such as glass, aramid and boron have extremely high tensile and compressive strength but in 'solid form' these properties are not readily apparent. This is due to the fact that when stressed, random surface flaws will cause each material to crack and fail well below its theoretical 'breaking point'. To overcome this problem, the material is produced in fibre form, so that, although the same number of random flaws will occur, they will be restricted to a small number of fibres with the remainder exhibiting the material's theoretical strength. Therefore a bundle of fibres will reflect more accurately the optimum performance of the material. However, fibres alone can only exhibit tensile properties along the fibre's length, in the same way as fibres in a rope.

It is when the resin systems are combined with reinforcing fibres such as glass, carbon and aramid, that exceptional properties can be obtained. The resin matrix spreads the load applied to the composite between each of the individual fibres and also protects the fibres from damage caused by abrasion and impact. High strengths and stiffnesses, ease of moulding complex shapes, high environmental resistance all coupled with low densities, make the resultant composite superior to metals for many applications.

Since Polymer Matrix Composites combine a resin system and reinforcing fibres, the properties of the resulting composite material will combine something of the properties of the resin on its own with that of the fibres on their own.


Overall, the properties of the composite are determined by:

i) The properties of the fibre 
ii) The properties of the resin 
iii) The ratio of fibre to resin in the composite (Fibre Volume Fraction) 
iv) The geometry and orientation of the fibres in the composite

The first two will be dealt with in more detail later. The ratio of the fibre to resin derives largely from the manufacturing process used to combine resin with fibre, as will be described in the section on manufacturing processes. However, it is also influenced by the type of resin system used, and the form in which the fibres are incorporated. In general, since the mechanical properties of fibres are much higher than those of resins, the higher the fibre volume fraction the higher will be the mechanical properties of the resultant composite. In practice there are limits to this, since the fibres need to be fully coated in resin to be effective, and there will be optimum packing of the generally circular cross-section fibres. In addition, the manufacturing process used to combine fibre with resin leads to varying amounts of imperfections and air inclusions. Typically, with a common hand lay-up process as widely used in the boat-building industry, a limit for Fibre Volume Fraction is approximately 30-40%. With the higher quality, more sophisticated and precise processes used in the aerospace industry, Fibre Volume Fractions approaching 70% can be successfully obtained.

The geometry of the fibres in a composite is also important since fibres have their highest mechanical properties along their lengths, rather than across their widths. This leads to the highly anisotropic properties of composites, where, unlike metals, the mechanical properties of the composite are likely to be very different when tested in different directions. This means that it is very important when considering the use of composites to understand at the design stage, both the magnitude and the direction of the applied loads. When correctly accounted for, these anisotropic properties can be very advantageous since it is only necessary to put material where loads will be applied, and thus redundant material is avoided.

It is also important to note that with metals the properties of the materials are largely determined by the material supplier, and the person who fabricates the materials into a finished structure can do little to change those 'in-built' properties. However, a composite material is formed at the same time as the structure is itself being fabricated. This means that the person who is making the structure is creating the properties of the resultant composite material, and so the manufacturing processes they use have an unusually critical part to play in determining the performance of the resultant structure.

Published courtesy of David Cripps, Gurit