Composite materials have been a staple on commercial aircraft since their debut on the Airbus A300 in 1983. Today, composite materials used alongside aluminum alloys are found in 40% of modern aircraft. With an ever-increasing amount of aircraft implementing these contemporary materials, it is important to understand their advantages and disadvantages. In this blog, we will define composite materials before going into their pros and cons.
Composite materials can be generally defined as a combination of two materials with differing physical and chemical properties. In aerospace, there are two broad categories of composites used, those being fibrous and particulate composites. Fibrous composites consist of strong carbon or glass fibers in a polymer resin matrix. Using this design, which mimics structures found in nature, engineers can make strong materials that are less dense than a conventional metallic component. Particulate composites implement non-metallic particles suspended in a metallic substrate. This technique is more novel and is still being developed for widespread aerospace use.
While composites are found on many aircraft, not every part of the plane can be equipped with this material. Initially, only the rudder and vertical tail fin were constructed with composite materials, whereas modern aircraft use composites to build structural pieces and individual components. Today, composites can be found on engine blades, interiors, wide-body wings, nacelles, and more.
There are several well-documented advantages to using composite materials on aircraft. Of these, the single greatest is weight reduction. Since most composites generally have 60% of the density of aluminum, they weigh much less for the same amount of area. Additionally, composite materials have a better strength-to-weight ratio than conventional aluminum alloys, leading to increased longevity and less maintenance cost. Also, due to their smoothness and weight, composites can greatly improve fuel efficiency, saving money and benefiting the environment. Finally, composite structures are less prone to corrosion, which is an ever-present consideration for aircraft.
Unfortunately, the use of composite materials on aircraft is not without drawbacks. Of particular concern is the inability to identify damage to the composite structure's interior. For example, when an aluminum wing is damaged, it will typically be bent or dented, quickly alerting maintenance crews to a problem. Composites, on the other hand, while generally more sturdy, will not show any visible outward signs of damage. When composite surfaces are damaged, they are much more costly and difficult to repair than aluminum.
Further, the polymer resin used to bind most composite materials will begin to degrade at around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, thus posing an incredible fire risk. When composites do catch fire, they release several materials which are toxic to both humans and the atmosphere. As such, the use of composites is limited in parts of the aircraft where high temperatures are expected, such as the engine.
As fuel prices continue to rise, aircraft manufacturers are expected to feel much pressure from customers to implement the lighter and more fuel-efficient composite technology in new aircraft. For example, the forthcoming A350-1000 is a specialized variant of the Airbus A350, which features a fuselage made primarily of composite materials.
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