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History of Composites

The Evolution of Lightweight Composite Materials

By

Carbon fiber and Kevlar hybrid

Modern composite: carbon fiber and Kevlar hybrid.

Todd Johnson

A composite is when two or more different materials are combined together to create a superior and unique material. The first uses of composites date back to the 1500s B.C. when early Egyptians and Mesopotamian settlers used a mixture of mud and straw to create strong and durable buildings. Straw continued to provide reinforcement to ancient composite products including pottery and boats.

Later, in 1200 AD, the Mongols invented the first composite bow. Using a combination of wood, bone, and “animal glue,” bows were pressed and wrapped with birch bark. These bows were extremely powerful and extremely accurate. Composite Mongolian bows provided Genghis Khan with military dominance, and because of the composite technology, this weapon was the most powerful weapon on earth until the invention of gunpowder.

Birth of the “Plastics Era”

The modern era of composites did not begin until scientists developed plastics. Until then, natural resins derived from plants and animals were the only source of glues and binders. In the early 1900s, plastics such as vinyl, polystyrene, phenolic and polyester were developed. These new synthetic materials outperformed resins that were derived from nature.

However, plastics alone could not provide enough strength for structural applications. Reinforcement was needed to provide the strength, and rigidity. In 1935, Owens Corning introduced the first glass fiber, fiberglass.

Fiberglass, when combined with a plastic polymer creates an incredibly strong structure that is also lightweight. This is the beginning of the Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) industry as we know it today.

WWII – Driving Early Composites Innovation

Many of the greatest advancements in composites were incubated by war. Just as the Mongols developed the composite bow, World War II brought the FRP industry from the laboratory into actual production.

Alternative materials were needed for lightweight applications in military aircraft. Engineers soon realized other benefits of composites beyond being lightweight and strong. It was discovered that fiberglass composites were transparent to radio frequencies, and the material was soon adapted for use in sheltering electronic radar equipment (Radomes).

Adapting Composites: “Space Age” to “Everyday”

By the end of the WWII, a small niche composites industry was in full swing. With lower demand for military products, the few composites innovators were now ambitiously trying to introduce composites into other markets. Boats were an obvious fit for composites, and the first commercial boat hull was introduced in 1946.

At this time Brandt Goldsworthy, often referred to as the “grandfather of composites,” developed new manufacturing processes and products. He is credited with numerous advancements including being the first to fiberglass a surfboard, which revolutionized the sport.

Goldsworthy also invented a manufacturing process known as pultrusion. Today, products manufactured from this process include ladder rails, tool handles, pipes, arrow shafts, armor, train floors, medical devices, and more.

Continued Advancement in Composites

In the 1970s the composites industry began to mature. Better plastic resins and improved reinforcing fibers were developed. DuPont developed an aramid fiber known as Kevlar, this fiber has become the standard in armor due to its high tenacity. Carbon fiber was also developed around this time; it has since been replacing metal as the new material of choice.

The composites industry is still evolving, with much of the growth is now focused around renewable energy. Wind turbine blades are constantly pushing the limits on size and are requiring advanced materials, designs, and manufacturing.

Looking Forward

In the future, composites will utilize even better fibers and resins, many of which will incorporate nano-materials. Dedicated university programs and research institutions will continue to develop improved materials and ways to manufacture them into products.

Additionally, composites are on the path towards being more environmentally friendly. Resins will incorporate recycled plastics and bio-based polymers. Composites will continue to make the world lighter, stronger, more durable, and a better place to live.

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