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New Method of Forming Composites Allows Materials to be Made to Order

31 May 2011

A team of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found a way to make complex composite materials whose attributes can be fine-tuned to give various combinations of properties such as stiffness, strength, resistance to impacts and energy dissipation.

The key feature of the new composites is a “co-continuous” structure of two different materials with very different properties, creating a material combining aspects of both. The co-continuous structure means that the two interleaved materials each form a kind of three-dimensional lattice whose pieces are fully connected to each other from side to side, front to back, and top to bottom.

The already published research was carried out by Post Doctorate Lifeng Wang, Undergraduate Jacky Lau and Professors Mary Boyce and Edwin Thomas and was funded by the US Army through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

The initial objective of the research was to “try to design a material that can absorb energy under extreme loading situations,” Wang explains. Such a material could be used as shielding for trucks or aircraft, he says: “It could be lightweight and efficient, flexible, not just a solid mantle” like most present-day armour. In most conventional materials, even modern advanced composites, once cracks start to form they tend to propagate through the material, Wang says. But in the new co-continuous materials, crack propagation is limited within the microstructure, he says, making them highly “damage tolerant” even when subjected to many crack-producing events.

Thomas, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and head of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, says, “We’ve pretty much exhausted the natural homogeneous materials,” but the new fabrication techniques developed in this research can “take to another level” the material development process. The researchers designed the new materials through computer simulations, then made samples that were tested under laboratory conditions. The simulations and the experimental data “agree nicely,” Thomas says. While this initial research focused on tuning the material’s mechanical properties, the same principles could be applied to controlling a material’s electrical, thermal, optical or other properties, the researchers say. The process could even be used to make materials with ""tunable"" properties: for example, to allow certain frequencies of phonons — waves of heat or sound — to pass through while blocking others, with the selection of frequencies tuned through changes in mechanical pressure. It could also be used to make materials with shape-memory properties, which could be compressed and then spring back to a specific form.

Richard Vaia, acting Chief of the Nanostructured and Biological Materials Branch at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, says this work is “an exciting demonstration of the crucial importance of architecture in materials-by-design concepts.” Vaia says this work “provides an example of the future of composite and hybrid materials technology where direct-write fabrication, printing technologies and complex fibre-weaving techniques are not simply manufacturing tools, but an integral part of a robust, implementable digital design and manufacturing paradigm.”

The next step in the research, Thomas says, is to make co-continuous composites out of pairs of materials whose properties are even more drastically different than those used in the initial experiments, such as metal with ceramic, or polymer with metal. Such composites could be very different from any materials made before, he says.





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