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31 Oct 2016 Fascinating and Problem Solving Composites – Martyn Ingram, Group Director

Martyn-News.jpgI don't think we have ever seen more interesting times in the world of materials, and the materials we are best known for at Morgan GRP – composites – are endlessly fascinating.

Composites have been used by mankind for as long as people have been building shelters, tools and totems, with the earliest builders discovering that walls made from a mix of straw and mud were more robust.

Warring Mongols found that using composites of bamboo, silk, cattle tendons and horns to fashion their archery bows made them more stealthy.

The more sophisticated we have become, the more we have been able to engineer composites which display a range of useful traits, from strength, flexibility, fire retardance and heat resistance.

I was quite excited to read that Facebook has built a carbon fibre aircraft designed to create a communications signal to give far-flung places internet access.

There is of course some self-interest on Facebook’s part with this invention, but it is, I think, an inventive development.

A full-scale model of Facebook’s Aquila, the high-altitude, solar-powered, long-endurance aircraft— is ready for flight testing as we speak.

The real thing will have the wingspan of a Boeing 747 at a fraction of the weight – thanks to carbon fibre composite materials that are stronger than steel.

Elsewhere, in a partnership between the University of Birmingham and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, scientists have developed a method which sees materials commonly used in aircraft and satellites, to self-heal any cracks at temperatures well below freezing.

So – self-healing composites which could be used on aircraft, wind turbines, or even satellites.

While we are accustomed to spotting composites in the built world, composite occur commonly in the natural world – the most useful being human bone, a composite of calcium and collagen.

And biological materials are one of the richest sources of new research, discovery and application when it comes to composites.

For instance, cellulose nanocrystals – a group of biological materials found in trees, algae, fungi and some sea creatures - are known to display extreme toughness, strength and elasticity, properties scientists are excited about when it comes to applications in our built world. 

Many experts are talking of cellulose nanocrystals being useful in biodegradable material science, electronics, biomedical engineering, drug delivery, and, in fact, the material is so tough, some are positing their use in bullet-proof vests and military helmets.