When does 1+1=3? When it is a composite!

By on June 3, 2011
Composites Add Up

Before you start questioning my math skills think about this: A composite is a brand new material which is created when two or more things are combined, typically some kind of fiber and a resin or matrix which binds the fibers together. When you combine those things they become something completely unique, which is better than either of those things by themselves.

Composites are not a new idea! They were first used in the 1500s B.C when early Mesopotamian and Egyptian settlers combined mud and straw to build strong and durable buildings. Straw was also used to reinforce ancient composite products like pottery and boats. Later the Mongols invented the first composite bow by using a combination of wood, bone and glue. These bows were extremely powerful and accurate. This was the most powerful weapon on earth until the invention of gunpowder.

When plastics were developed the modern era of composites began. Until then, natural resins derived from plants and animals were the only source of adhesive or matrix. But plastics alone could not provide enough strength so they were combined with fiber. The first fibers were glass and developed by Owens Corning in 1935. This was the beginning of the Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) composites as we know them today.

As with the composite bow, many of the greatest advancements in composites have been developed for war. Alternative materials were needed to make aircraft lighter and more agile, it was also discovered that fiberglass composites were transparent to radio frequencies so they were used in radomes.

Many of the technologies created in war time were converted to new markets in times of peace. So now composites are being used for boats, cars, sports equipment, jewelry and construction. New markets and materials are being explored every day. It is exciting to think of the ways they will be used in the future. The light weight and high strength of these new materials change the way products are designed and used. It will be exciting to see how they change the markets and products in the future.

About Joanne Fountain

Joanne teaches Composites Fabrication and Assembly for the Aerospace Institute at St. Louis Community College. She began in the composites industry over 25 years ago as a lab tech performing destructive mechanical tests on composite laminates then moved on to research the embedment of fiber optics to create smart skins. She is well versed in a wide variety of composites manufacturing methods and continues to stay abreast of new trends in the technology.

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