Georgia Tech Professor Chuck Zhang shares his expertise on nanocomposites.

If there are renowned experts in the up-and-coming nanocomposites industry, one of them is Chuck Zhang, Ph.D., a professor at Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering in Atlanta. His research interests include scalable nanomanufacturing, development of multifunctional composites and nanocomposites materials and their manufacturing processes, and additive manufacturing (3-D printing and printed electronics). His research projects have been sponsored by many organizations and companies, ranging from the Army Research Laboratory and Office of Naval Research to General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin.

Dr. Zhang recently talked with Composites Manufacturing magazine to unravel the mysteries of nanocomposites and shine light on where the materials are headed. 

Q: What exactly are nanocomposites?

A: In nanocomposites, you have one phase, primarily the reinforcement or matrix material, which is in the nanoscale. A nanoscale is defined as one dimension of the material that is less than 100 nanometers.

Q: How long have nanomaterials been used in composite products?

A: It goes back to the 1970s and the early 1980s. That was the time of the first commercial success in nanomaterials at Toyota. They developed a nanocomposite by mixing a thermoplastic matrix, like nylon, with nanoclays. It was used for auto parts close to the engine block. They replaced the metal so they could save weight.

The first report that Toyota published was in 1988. In that paper they talked about the mechanical strength; it was stronger than traditional polymer parts. Better yet, the heat distortion that they could achieve was much better than with regular plastic parts. They could actually endure more heat, and they didn’t distort.

Q: What properties do nanocomposites bring to products that other materials don’t offer?

A: Most of the nanocomposite applications are for either special properties or multifunctionalities. In auto manufacturing, when the structures – particularly plastic – are painted, the paint is like a plastic. It’s non-conductive, and there’s a static issue. So they had to put some conductive particles [made with nanomaterials] into the paint so that it would make them anti-static.

Nanocomposites can also be used in high-end products, like sporting goods. High-performance golf clubs have nanotubes that can improve the mechanical properties. The response is better, so when players swing the club they can hit the ball further. Similarly, professional tennis players use nano-enhanced rackets. The stiffness of such rackets is believed to be better, so the players can hit the ball better, at higher speed.