Polymers and composites made incredibly cheaply

The method allowed 3-D printing of a spiral (top) and a molecular model of the monomer (center). The team also fabricated a carbon-fiber-reinforced composite panel (bottom) similar to those used for cars, boats, and planes.

Researchers have found a way to create industrially important thermoset polymer and fiber-reinforced polymer composite products at considerably lower expense than has been possible before.

The method could be useful for making a wide variety of polymer and composite products in a range of creative forms—including strong, lightweight shaped materials for the bodies of cars, boats, and planes, some of the largest-volume applications of fiber-reinforced polymer composites.

Manufacturing high-performance thermoset components currently require autoclaves that cure preshaped monomer resins by heating them under pressure. The size of the autoclave scales with the size of the component, so some are very large indeed. The process is slow and uses an enormous amount of energy, especially for large components.

Aerospace engineers Scott R. White and Philippe H. Geubelle, chemist Jeffrey S. Moore, materials scientist Nancy R. Sottos, and coworkers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, developed the new cost-effective method (Nature 2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0054-x).

The researchers estimate that conventional curing of a small section of a Boeing 787 fiber-reinforced composite fuselage requires 96,000 kilowatt hours of electrical energy, the amount used by about nine residential homes in one year. They believe their new curing method would lower the energy requirement for the same part to 9.6 milliwatt hours, enough to light a 25-watt incandescent bulb for about 2 seconds.

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