: Aircraft engineering ( . .)


: 1883



Composite materials have gained their acceptance among structural engi- neers during the last decades. The performance of a composite depends upon:

The composition, orientation, length and shape of the fibers;


The properties of the material used for the matrix (or resin);


The quality of the bond between the fibers and the matrix material. Composite materials consist of any of various fibrous reinforcements coupled with a compatible matrix to achieve superior structural performance. The most important contribution to material strength is that of fiber orientation. Fibers can be unidirectional, crossed ply, or random in their arrangement and, in any one direction, the mechanical properties will be proportional to the amount of fibers oriented in that direction. Reduced properties result from the shear strength of the weak matrix. In fact, both the strength and module of a composite in a ply are reduced considerably when the angle of the applied load deviates from the di- rection of the filaments in the composites. Fig. 2.1.1 shows how a unidirectional reinforced composite will have a far lower strength in transverse tension than one loaded exactly in the direction of the fibers. Therefore, it is evident that with increasingly random directionality of fibers, mechanical properties in any one direction are lowered. Thus, because of their low mechanical properties normal to the fiber direction, laminate composites will need to be strengthened or stif- fened by laying up plies (unidirectional tape or woven fabric) in different direc- tions. Such lamination will be necessary because stresses in a loaded component or panel can vary in both the X and Y direction.

Laminate properties of various combinations of plies oriented at different angles can be calculated through the use of computer programs to produce the best design. These computer aids are particularly helpful, because of the com- posite's non-isotropic properties, in calculating the various properties of any combination of oriented plies.

In this Chapter only those materials which are used on airframe structures will be discussed the data given is general and, while it may be used by the de- signer to do rough sizing, it is not appropriate for stress analysis or final sizing

use. No composite material design allowable data is given (usually this data is part of a company's proprietary data) in this chapter because numerous varieties exist and many improved products are available every year.

Material selection


Material selection plays a large part in final cost, not only because the raw material itself is expensive but also because the material selected often deter- mines downstream manufacturing costs. The material selection criteria are given below:



Available mechanical and environmental properties database


Suitability for use in proposed manufacturing processes


Structural performance


Ease of processing


Ease of handling




Maximization of knowledge base


Available processing data


Immediate or near term commercial availability


There are many cases where more than one material can meet the struc- tural and/or weight requirements specified for a given part. Assume there is a choice between a unidirectional material form (which can be used on the auto- mated lay-up machine) and a broadgoods form (fabric or woven) of the same ma- terial. Clearly there is a difference in the costs of these raw material forms: un- idirectional prepreg generally less expensive because the material supplier has not gone through the added step of weaving the broadgoods fabric. At the same time, it may take more time to fabricate a laminate component from unidirection- al tape than form broadgoods. Therefore, there is a tradeoff between actual raw material costs and the downstream manufacturing costs which are predeter- mined in choosing a particular raw material.

Obviously, along with cost considerations, any design must carefully match the requisite properties with the candidate composite material. Once the optimum, or best available, material is chosen, the designer must be concerned

with any additional limitations that material selection might impose on the capa- bilities of the design. The common areas of concern include hot/wet properties, notched effect (if fasteners or small cutouts are used in design), in-service tem- perature, and impact resistance. Critical limitations that must be considered in composite design include the relatively low strength and stiffness in the out-of- plane direction and often poor shear properties. These factors must be con- sidered to prevent delaminating under compressive loading or inadequate out-of- plane load-carrying capabilities.

Various kinds of composite materials with temperature resistant matrices and high-performance reinforcements are currently available or are in advanced stages of development

Since the properties of composites depend critically on the processes used to make them, designers must work with prepreg and fiber producers to achieve desired results. The designers should be aware of the weaknesses of various fibers and construction methods and so design around them. The following are material specification requirements:

Fiber and fabric properties


Storage and retest requirements


Uncured prepreg properties


Cured or co-consolidated prepreg properties


Mechanical properties


Environmental testing


Processability trials


Chemical characterization


Non-destructive inspection (NDI)


In general, most of the major reinforcement systems have been well cha- racterized for many years, and performance improvements have occurred in rel- atively small increments. However, improvements in the matrix resins (both thermoset and thermoplastic) have allowed great strides in composite fabrication, producibility, performance, and stability.

The reinforcing fiber may have a negative thermal expansion coefficient along its axis, a property that makes possible the design of structures with zero

or very low linear and planar thermal expansion. Thus, the main support truss for the mirrors of the "Space Telescope" is made of a carbon/epoxy composite to meet extreme close tolerance requirements

It is worthwhile to note research on organic conducting polymers, which would have many airframe applications, such as to provide shielding on compo- site structures for sensitive control electronics from electro-magnetic interfe- rence (EMI). Another related application is lightning strike tolerance on air- frame structures.

Hybrid laminates


Hybrid systems, made by combining two or more types of fibers in a sin- gle laminate, can be tailored to meet specific performance requirements, and are an effective means of reducing the cost of composites. The unique performance of one of the reinforcing materials compared to the other can enable the compo- site to do a job that neither can do independently. While hybrid composites any offer the best choices for some design cases, designing with hybrids is somewhat complicated because most of their properties are not as easily characterized as are those of single fiber composites. Applications and data show that different fibers can be combined successfully in a structure in many ways. The fibers can be used in different layers or even in completely different parts of the same structural element. They also can be blended to form a hybrid tape or woven to form a hybrid fabric.

For hybrid constructions, directional response and failure parameters should be defined for each material. Care must be taken to provide reinforcement for all loading directions. Since carbon or graphite is conductive both thermally and electrically and has a slightly negative coefficient of thermal expansions, it is conceivable for designers to develop hybrid material geometries with structural responses totally different from the existing conventional metal materials.

As the cost/performance tradeoff becomes more critical, hybrids may be- come the material system of choice for more structural uses, making them mate- rials with a future. Nevertheless, the future of hybrids in the airframe industry appears uncertain and much still needs to be learned about this systems. Issuers peculiar to hybrid systems are described below:

(a) Material more tailored to specific needs than is available with a single fi- ber-matrix combination is very desirable.

(b)Different fibers have different:


Strains to failure




Coefficients of thermal expansion


Coefficients of moisture expansion


(c) Thermally induced stresses exist in every hybrid lamina (below the lami- nate level)

Caused by different thermal expansion characteristics of constituents


Can be large enough to cause failure without mechanical load


(d) Effectively an infinite variety of hybrids is possible


Each new hybrid must have some minimum level of material property qualification

The wide variety of possible hybrids (just like the wide variety of poss- ible laminates) must be deliberately restricted on purely practical grounds.

There are typically three methods of hybridization:


Interplay Different reinforcements are stacked in separate layers with no mixing within the layers

Interplay Different reinforcements are commingled within a layer ei- ther by alternating strands or mixing chopped fibers

Selective placement the laminate is basically composed of one rein- forcement, but a different reinforcement is added in certain areas (such as cor- ners, ribs, etc.)

Hybrid reinforcements can be combined in almost all material forms in- cluding:





Woven roving


Chopped fibers


Common hybrids include: (a) Carbon/Aramid

Can be combined without residual thermal stresses since coefficients of thermal expansion are very similar (b) Carbon/Glass

Increased impact strength


Improved fracture toughness


No galvanic corrosion


Reduced cost over all carbon fiber laminates


Organic matrices


The purpose of the matrix is to bind the reinforcement (fiber) together and to transfer load to and between fibers, and to protect the flaw- or notch-sensitive fibers from self-abrasion and externally induced scratches. The matrix also pro- tects the fibers from environmental moisture and chemical corrosion or oxida- tion, which can lead to embrittle-ment and premature failure. In addition, the matrix provides many essential functions from an engineering standpoint: the matrix keeps the reinforcing fibers in the proper orientation and position so that they can carry the intended loads, distributes the loads more or less evenly among the fibers, provides resistance to crack propagation and damage, and provides all of me interlaminar shear strength of the composite. The matrix gen- erally determines the overall service temperature limitations of the composite and may also control its environmental resistance. In summary, the matrix:

distributes loads through the laminate


protects fibers from abrasion and impact




compressive strength


transverse mechanical properties


interlaminar shear


service operating temperature


selection of fabrication process and tool design


contributes to fracture toughness


With any fiber, the material used for the matrix must be chemically com- patible with me fibers and should have complementary mechanical properties. Al- so, for practical reasons, the matrix material should be reasonably easy to process.

The development of high strength and high thermal resistance is frequent- ly accompanied by complex cure procedures or britdeness in thermosets. Over- coming these obstacles has proven the key to developing viable composite ma- trices, with processing/fabrication constraints of fiber wet-out, prepreg shelf life, tack and drape, cure shrinkage, etc., adding to the complexity.

The organic matrices commonly used are broadly divided into the catego- ries of ther-moset and thermoplastic; organic matrices commonly used on air- frame structures are given below:



Expoxy Polyethylene


Polyester Polystyrene


Phenolics Polypropylene


Bismaleimide (BMI) Polyemeretherketone (PEEK)


Polyimides Polyetherimide (PEI)


Polyethersulfone (PES)


Polyphenylene Sulfide


Polyamide-imide (PAI)


The relative advantages of thermosets and thermoplastics include: THERMOSET MATRICES THERMOPLASTIC MATRICES



Undergo chemical change when cured


Non-reacting, no cure required


Processing is irreversible


Post-formable, can be reprocessed


Low viscosity/high flow


High viscosity/low flow


Long (2 hours) cure


Short processing times possible


Tacky prepreg


Boardy prepreg



Relatively low processing temperature


Superior toughness to thermosets


Good fiber wetting


Reusable scrap


Formable into complex shapes


Rejected parts reformable


Low viscosity


Rapid (low cost) processing


Infinite shelf life without refrigeration


High delamination resistance (Disadvantages)


Long processing time


Less chemical solvent resistance than thermosets


Restricted storage


Requires very high processing temperatures


Requires refrigeration


Outgassing contamination


Limited processing experience available


Less of a database compared to thermoset


Compared to thermoplastics, thermoset matrices offer lower melt viscosi- ties, lower processing temperatures and pressures, are more easily prepregged and are lower cost. On the other hand, thermoplastic matrices offer indefinite shelf life, faster processing cycles, simple fabrication, and generally do not re- quire controlled-environment storage or post curing.

Thermoset matrices


The most prominent matrices are epoxy, polyimides, polyester and phe- nolics.

Thermoset matrix systems have been dominating the composite industry because of their reactive nature. These matrices allow ready impregnation of fi- bers, their malleability permits manufacture of complex forms, and they provide a means of achieving high-strength, high-stiffness crosslinked networks in a cured part.



Epoxy systems are the major composite material for low-temperature ap- plications [usually under 200F (93 C)] and generally provide outstanding chemical resistance, superior adhesion to fibers, superior dimensional stability, good hot/wet performance, and high dielectric properties. Epoxy can be formu- lated to a wide range of viscosities for different fabrication processes and cure schedules. They are free from void-forming volatiles, have long shelf lives, pro- vide relatively low cure shrinkage, and are available in many thoroughly- characterized standard prepreg forms. They also have good chemical stability and flow properties, and exhibit excellent adherence and water resistance, low shrinkage during cure, freedom from gas formation, and stability under envi- ronmental extremes. In addition, on other very important advantage is the wealth of database information available.

The epoxy family is the most widely used matrix system in the advanced composites field. Because it is generally limited to service temperatures, this re- stricts use in many aerospace applications, where higher service temperatures are required.

The baseline system of epoxy used in the majority of applications in- cludes:

Superior mechanical properties


250F curing: 65F to 180F (-53 to 82 C) service temperatures


350F curing: - 65F to 250F (-53 to 121 C) short-term or 200F (93C) long-term service temperature

Epoxy matrices, the workhorse of the advanced composites industry today, are suitable for use with glass, carbon/graphite, aramid, boron, and other rein- forcements and hybrids. Yet greater demands can be met by conventional epox- ies are being made for today's parts, so a wide variety of epoxies are being devel- oped to handle the ever-increasing requirements for speed of fabrication, tough- ness, and higher service temperatures.

Unmodified epoxies are brittle. When subjected to impact from a flying stone, an occasional bump, or a dropped wrench, etc., they can be damaged in- ternally and suffer loss of laminate compressive strength. Epoxies have been

modified or improved to increase their damage resistance. The result is tough- ened epoxies.

Epoxies have a tendency to absorb moisture; this absorbed moisture can lead to decrease mechanical properties especially at elevated temperatures. The presence of water decrees the glass transition temperature of the epoxy matrix, hence the term wet Tg This effect must be considered in design.

The following environmental hazards have detrimental effects on epoxy matrices:





Ultraviolet light


Hydraulic fluid




Cleaning agents


POLYIMIDES (HIGHER SERVICE TEMPERATURE MATRICES) Polyimides are thermo-oxidatively stable and retain a high degree of their me- chanical properties at temperatures far beyond the degradation temperature of many polymers, often above 600F (320C). Several types with superior ele- vated temperature resistance are listed below:

Bismaleimides: good to 450F (230C), relatively easy to process


Condensation types: good to 600F (320C), very difficult to process


Addition types: good to 500 600F (260 320C), improved pro- cessability compared to condensation types

(a) BMI (Bismaleimides), a special polyimide system, operates around a


350F to 450F (177 to 230C) upper limit. BMI offer good mechanical strength and stiffness, but are generally brittle and may have cure-shrinkage. Other BMIs have significant improvements in toughening which greatly enhances their useful- ness. When good hot/wet performance or thermal stability beyond epoxy limits is desired, BMI matrices may be the matrix of choice. BMI characteristics are summarized below:

BMIs provide increased thermal stability compared to epoxies, with comparable processability

The major problem with BMIs has been increased brittleness over epox- ies with reduced damage resistance and toughness

BMI systems with improved toughness are available at the sacrifice mechanical properties

(b) PMR-15 (Polymerization of Monomeric Reactants) is a thermoset addi- tion polyimide which offers higher continuous service temperatures. Originally developed by NASA. Thermo-oxidative stability, relatively low cost, and availa- bility in a variety of forms make PMR-15 one of the candidates for airframe in- dustrial applications where performance from 500 to 600F (260 320C) is the key material selection criterion. PMR-15 processing is complicated, requir- ing application of near 600 psi (4.1 Mpa). A heated tool is often necessary to achieve faster heatup rates than are possible with conventional tooling in an au- toclave. The room temperature properties of PMR-15 are similar to those of

350F (177C) epoxy, but, unlike epoxy, properties do not decrease significant- ly until temperatures over 500F (260C) are reached, even after exposure to moisture. NASA has developed LARC-160, a "PMR" system which provides a significant improvement in processability over the PMR-15 matrix, with only a small loss in elevated temperature properties. However, both NASA's PMR-15 and LARC-160 matrices are still in progress under their continuing develop- ment programs.

(c) Polyester


Polyesters matrices can be cured at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, or at a temperature up to 350F (177C) and under higher pressure. These matrices offer a balance of low cost and ease of handling, along with good mechanical and electrical properties, good chemical resistance properties (especially to acids), and dimensional stability. Polyester combined with fiber- glass fibers becomes a very good radar-transparent structural material and po- lyester is also a relatively inexpensive matrix that offers a compromise between strength and impact resistance for use in aircraft radomes. Low mold-pressure requirements helped promote the manufacture of large polyester composite struc- tures, and this was further helped along by their relatively quick cure characte- ristics.

Vinyl esters are a subfamily of polyesters, derived from epoxy-matrix backbones, which provide higher tensile elongation, toughness, heat resistance, and chemical resistance than conventional unsaturated polyesters.

(d) Phenolics


Phenolics are the oldest of the thermoset matrices, and have excellent in- sulating properties, resistance to moisture, and good electrical properties (ex- cept arc resistance). The chemical resistance of phenolics is good, except to strong acids and alkalis. Phenolics are available as compression-molding com- pounds, and injection-molding compounds. This material is very useful in mili- tary and high-performance aerospace applications where radiation-hardness, di- mensional stability at high loads and temperatures, and ability to ablate may be critical to component survival.


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