Carbon nanotube “stitches” strengthen composites
Method to reinforce these materials could help make airplane frames lighter, more damage-resistant.
The newest Airbus and Boeing passenger jets flying today are made primarily from advanced composite materials such as carbon fiber reinforced plastic — extremely light, durable materials that reduce the overall weight of the plane by as much as 20 percent compared to aluminum-bodied planes. Such lightweight airframes translate directly to fuel savings, which is a major point in advanced composites’ favor.
But composite materials are also surprisingly vulnerable: While aluminum can withstand relatively large impacts before cracking, the many layers in composites can break apart due to relatively small impacts — a drawback that is considered the material’s Achilles’ heel.
Now MIT aerospace engineers have found a way to bond composite layers in such a way that the resulting material is substantially stronger and more resistant to damage than other advanced composites. Their results are published this week in the journal Composites Science and Technology.
The researchers fastened the layers of composite materials together using carbon nanotubes — atom-thin rolls of carbon that, despite their microscopic stature, are incredibly strong. They embedded tiny “forests” of carbon nanotubes within a glue-like polymer matrix, then pressed the matrix between layers of carbon fiber composites. The nanotubes, resembling tiny, vertically-aligned stitches, worked themselves within the crevices of each composite layer, serving as a scaffold to hold the layers together.
In experiments to test the material’s strength, the team found that, compared with existing composite materials, the stitched composites were 30 percent stronger, withstanding greater forces before breaking apart.
Roberto Guzman, who led the work as an MIT postdoc in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), says the improvement may lead to stronger, lighter airplane parts — particularly those that require nails or bolts, which can crack conventional composites.
“More work needs to be done, but we are really positive that this will lead to stronger, lighter planes,” says Guzman, who is now a researcher at the IMDEA Materials Institute, in Spain. “That means a lot of fuel saved, which is great for the environment and for our pockets.”
The study’s co-authors include AeroAstro professor Brian Wardle and researchers from the Swedish aerospace and defense company Saab AB.