The result? “Carbon fiber on steroids — stronger, stiffer, tougher,” says Belden. He emphasizes that the material can be used to make a part that will be stronger than the metal or fiberglass part, or, with engineering, can be smaller and lighter but just as strong as the part it replaces.
Zyvex engineers its own prepreg and epoxy in order to enhance the Piranha with carbon nanotubes. “For workers building the vessel, this means they’re able to quickly assemble a Piranha in our tooling without needing doctorate degrees in nano-chemistry,” said Nameth.
From start of construction to launch a boat takes approximately 90 days, with most of the time dedicated to system integration work such as placing the engines in the craft and connecting the systems. The nano-composite build process takes places at the beginning of the assembly process and overall, hulls are outfitted to meet customer requirements.
The company took more than two years to evaluate its options before settling on a boat as its technology demonstrator. “As an alternative to marine, we seriously evaluated the wind energy market with the intent to create an ultra-light blade that would increase efficiency and reduce operating costs,” says Nemeth. “We also looked at airplanes and concept cars,” adds Belden. “Ultimately, we had very strong internal marine design capabilities and recognized that our nano-carbon fiber composites could greatly impact the performance of a maritime platform if fully considered in every stage of development.”
Existing unmanned surface vessels, typically made of aluminum are heavier, carry a smaller payload and generally have a tenth of the range of the Piranha. “But a major drawback at the moment is that the carbon nanotube product is 30 percent more costly than regular carbon fiber,” Belden says. “The biggest challenge we’ve found with our customers is that they don’t have the ability to design products to use our material.” If a boat manufacturer using aluminum or fiberglass attempts to simply switch the materials out, Belden explains, the boat would be too light for the design and would be unstable. For example, if a sailboat manufacturer wanted to replace an aluminum beam, Zyvex would suggest a redesign to account for the lighter weight while maintaining stability. “Composites require a different engineering process than metal or fiberglass,” says Belden. Those differences reflect industry reluctance to greater adoption of the material.
Despite challenges, Zyvex showed boat manufacturers that while a typical 50-foot boat weighs 50,000 pounds, it can make a 10,000-pound boat with a fully furnished cabin and galley that will use smaller engines, equating to significant fuel savings. “Right now they can’t get their minds around it,” Belden says.