Focus on use of nanotechnology to create enhanced advanced composite materials.
Australian advanced materials company Quickstep Holdings Limited (ASX:QHL – “Quickstep”) is participating in a European research project to investigate the use of nanotechnology to improve the material properties of advanced composites used in global transportation industries. The project is being undertaken by Quickstep's German subsidiary, Quickstep GmbH.
The total budget for the research project is approximately USD10 million, with Quickstep GmbH receiving up to USD 445,000 from the European Commission under the Seventh Framework Programme, which is the European Union's chief instrument for funding research over the period 2007 to 2013. Quickstep has already received its first payment from the European Commission in relation to the project.
The nanotechnology, known in this case as „nanotubes, involves the introduction of tiny „nano sized particles into the host composite material. Nanotechnology is currently generating considerable interest in the global scientific community, as it can significantly change and improve the overall properties of the end product.
In the case of nanotubes, it is believed that the introduction of tiny carbon tubes into the host composite resins could lead to improved properties including enhanced electrical conductivity and inter-laminar strength.
The molecular bond that occurs between layers of carbon fibre is important in maintaining strength and layer cohesion. With nanotube technology, it may be possible to greatly improve this bond by creating links that „Z-stitch the layers together at a nano level, greatly increasing component strength.
Electrical conductivity is also a key challenge in aerospace manufacturing because aircraft must have protection against electromagnetic interference and lightning strikes. Due to the relatively low conductivity of traditional carbon fibre materials, existing manufacturing solutions require that composite aerospace parts be covered with a metallic „mesh that significantly adds to the overall weight of the aircraft structure (around 900kg for a modern Airbus or Boeing aircraft) without making any structural contribution.
Carbon nanotubes have been found to dramatically increase the electrical conductivity of composite materials, meaning that this metallic mesh could be significantly thinned or removed altogether – leading to a reduction in an aircraft's weight and an increase in its fuel efficiency.
The train industry also has requirements for improved electrical conductivity to provide insulation against electrostatic load, lightning strikes and damaged overhead electricity cables falling onto a rail car.
The research project is evaluating the manufacture of composite materials infused with carbon nanotubes, with a sole focus on “out-of-autoclave” composite manufacturing technologies to eliminate the negative aspects of autoclave processing. Out-of-autoclave processing techniques – such as the Quickstep Process – have been shown to overcome many of the pitfalls associated with autoclave manufacturing (including energy inefficiency, slow curing profiles and an inefficient „batch production concept) whilst also offering benefits including reduced capital investment, reduced cure cycle time and lower running costs.
Managing Director of Quickstep, Mr Philippe Odouard said the research project could help solve many of the limitations associated with the use of composites within the global transportation industry.
“High-performance composites have emerged as a key solution to many of the main challenges in the global transportation sector, improving performance, reducing weight, increasing durability and - importantly - reducing environmental footprint,” Mr Odouard said. “However the dramatic shift towards the use of composites over the past decade has seen new technical challenges that need to be overcome. Nanotubes cured using the Quickstep Process address the area of electrical conductivity, and also provide additional toughness and improved inter laminar properties.”
“The more the Quickstep Process demonstrates faster cycle times and improved properties in existing and new materials, the greater acceptance Quickstep will have in this rapidly growing market, particularly in automotive.”
The research project is being completed by an alliance of 16 different organisations, including research institutes, SME suppliers and multi-national industrial transport end-users. In addition to Quickstep, participants include:
• The European Aeronautic Defence & Space Company (EADS);
• SLCA – a subsidiary of the SAFRAN Group which undertakes design and manufacture of composite parts for airliners, regional aircraft, business jets and helicopters;
• Alstom - one of the world's largest providers of rolling stock and rail transport infrastructure;
• The University of Cambridge, the University of London and the Catholic University of Leuven; and
• Coexpair, which will act as the project manager.
“This is a major research initiative involving some of the largest participants in the European research and transport manufacturing fields,” Mr Odouard commented. “We are delighted to take part in what we believe may represent the future of high performance composites manufacturing.”
The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2013.