As the name indicates, a composite combines different materials in order to form a new substance. The results are usually either a superior product or a cosmetically different one. Interestingly, the idea of composite materials goes all the way back to the early Egyptians who used a composite material consisting of mud and straw in order to make stronger bricks for their buildings. This “technology”, which seems to have originated around 1500 BC, was soon used in order to make more durable pottery and even boats.
The first composite bow was developed almost two thousand years later by the Mongols. They combined wood with bones and a crude form of glue that derived from animals. The bows were pressed and then they were wrapped with bark from birch trees. The result was bows that were much more accurate and much stronger than traditional ones. In fact, up until gunpowder was invented these bows were the most powerful weapons on the earth. Obviously this composite technology had a huge contribution to the military power and dominance of Genghis Khan.
Modern composite technology started to develop in the 1900’s when scientists developed plastic materials. Plastics, i.e., polystyrene, phenolic, vinyl and polyester, soon took the place of natural resins that had been used up until that time as glues and binders.
Such plastics obviously could not be used in buildings as they lack structural strength. However, this changed when in 1935 Owens Corning was able to introduce fiberglass. As we know the composite of fiberglass combined with polymer results in an extremely strong and very lightweight structure. Thus began the Fiber Reinforced Polymers industry that still thrives today.
World War II – Its contribution To Composites Innovation
As was the case with Genghis Khan and his bows, war continued to contribute to the advancement of composite technology. In fact it was the second world war that really set off the Fiber Reinforced Polymers industry.
The need for lightweight aircraft materials was met with FTP (Fiber Reinforced Polymers). It did not take long for engineers to discover that FTP had even more benefits than just being lightweight and strong. It also offered a material that radio frequencies did not pick up. Therefore FTP was used to create shields to hide Radomes, i.e., electronic radar equipment.
Composites Become Part Of Day To Day Life
The war resulted in many thriving composite companies. The end of the war obviously meant that their work would start to dry up. In order to keep this from happening, engineers started to ambitiously search for new applications for their products. One of the first areas that were exploited was aquatic navigation. In 1946 the first commercial boat hull was produced.
Fiberglass surfboards were then developed, which revolutionized the surfing sport. This was mostly thanks to the work of Brandt Goldsworthy who developed revolutionary manufacturing processes and many resulting products.
Another invention of Goldsworthy was the pultrusion process which is widely used today in order to create a huge array of day to day products. Pultrusion technology is used almost everywhere. You can find derived products in quantity not only in your home, but also in areas as diverse as construction sites, hospitals and battle fields.
Composites Continue To Advance
The 1970’s can be considered the golden age of composites. New technologies helped to improve and multiply applications for the composite industry. One such example can be found with the well known company DuPont. It was DuPont that developed Kevlar, which revolutionized the armor industry. Carbon fiber is another composite material that was developed in the 70’s and has been very successful at replacing metal in many fields.
The Future Of Composites
At this point in time a lot of the composite industry is looking to improve renewable energy sources. For example, wind turbines are made more efficient when they are larger and more lightweight.
There is a lot of research going into nano technology, which many times involves composite materials. Of course there is a lot of research going into making composite materials and their production more environmentally safe.
One thing is sure, composites will definitely continue to produce safer, stronger and lighter products for us and our day to day lives!