Polymer matrix composites are high-tech materials made by embedding reinforcing fibres in a plastic matrix. Many modern military and commercial aircraft could not be manufactured without the use of composite materials. The earliest composite material used to manufacture aircraft was fibreglass. In the 1950s, fibreglass, a mixture of glass fibres embedded in an epoxy resin, was first used in the manufacture of commercial airliners, as were carbon and boron fibre composites.
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Composite materials are a combination of two or more elements. Polymer composites are plastics that are reinforced with fibrous materials such as carbon or glass. The matrix material used for polymer composites is either a thermosetting polymer resin or a thermoplastic material. Composites made using thermosetting resins cannot be easily repaired or reworked after the composite is shaped. Thermoplastic material can be melted and reworked after they have set. This makes thermoplastic polymer composite aircraft components more easily repairable than those made with thermoset resins.
Fibreglass is a polymer plastic reinforced with glass fibres. First developed in the 1920s, glass-fibre reinforced plastics soon found use in naval and aeronautics applications. The United States military adopted the use of fibreglass in an effort to develop stronger and lighter military aircraft. By 1945, over 7,000,000 pounds of fibreglass saw use in military applications, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Fiberglass components are moulded into the shapes needed in the construction of the aircraft. The glass fibres are set in a matrix of plastic resin. Polyester or vinylester resins are commonly used as a matrix material, but thermoplastics are replacing the older types of matrix material because they are safer and easier to work with.
Carbon Fiber Composites
The rising cost of oil is forcing aeroplane manufacturers to put more emphasis on reducing weight and making aircraft more fuel-efficient. One way this goal is being achieved is through the use of carbon fibre composites in the manufacture of aircraft. Commercial airliners such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner operate much more efficiently and with lower fuel costs due to the use of carbon fibre composites. Carbon fibre composites also are widely used in the construction of military aircraft. Strong, lightweight carbon fibre materials are used extensively in control surfaces such as ailerons and rotors; they are more durable and corrosion resistant than metal components. Carbon fibre composites are used extensively in the components of aircraft such as the F-18 and the tilt-wing V-22 Osprey.
Aramid Fiber Composites
Aramid fibre composites can be found in some of the world's largest aircraft. Aromatic polyamides are polymer fibres with molecules oriented along the fibre axis. This exploits the chemical bonding between the molecules to make the resultant material extremely strong and light weight. The fibres are produced by spinning the polymer from a liquid solution. You might recognise some aramid fibre composites by their commercial names: Kevlar and Nomex. These materials are extremely strong, non-conductive and corrosion resistant. This makes them well suited to the manufacture of structural elements of aircraft. Large passenger aircraft such as the Airbus A380 are manufactured using polyamide materials. The result is a light and fuel-efficient airframe that does not give up structural integrity.
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