Breakthroughs in composite technology

Our active R&D programme is making exciting advances in the use of composite materials and advanced processing techniques to create next generation solutions for the rail, aerospace, industrial and automotive markets.

Composite materials are well known to offer weight savings compared to traditional solutions, but the difficulties associated with high volume manufacturing of parts using these materials have proved a barrier to many industries. Here at TRB, we’re at the forefront of solving these challenges. For example, the electric vehicle industry is growing substantially, and there is a demand for lightweight battery enclosures that meet the ingress protection (IP), structural and fire safety requirements of this sector. While aluminium enclosures have traditionally been used, new composite battery enclosures are significantly lighter, offsetting the weight increase from the batteries to improve electric vehicle range. The big challenge for automotive composite parts is being able to manufacture them at a sufficient rate. To address this issue, we have combined a simplified lay-up process with snap cure prepregs and a rapid pressing technique to reduce cycle times from several hours down to around five minutes, revolutionising the manufacturing process.

In the aerospace sector, the use of a new resin – polyfurfuryl alcohol (PFA) – is an exciting breakthrough for composite interior panels. This sustainable resin is derived from biomass waste, and has the potential to replace the oil-derived resins currently used for this application. Using PFA instead of phenolic prepregs avoids working with harmful chemicals, such as free formaldehydes and phenols, making the resin more user friendly and better for the environment. PFA offers excellent fire, smoke and toxicity (FST) performance, but PFA-based sandwich panels can suffer from a reduced skin-to-core bond strength, which would be a limiting factor for this application. We have overcome this issue by optimising cure parameters and using carefully selected secondary adhesives to significantly increase performance.

Attention is also being focussed on developing multi-functional composite products, for example, by introducing conductive pathways through structural composite components. This opens up a wealth of new possibilities, such as integrating wiring into standard battery enclosures – allowing the removal of traditional wiring looms. Incorporating these additional properties and features, while maintaining a lightweight composite product, is an exciting development, and this sort of multi-functionality will be key to further development of composites in the future.