A collaboration between Bombardier and researchers from the Universities of Surrey and Bristol in the U.K. has led to a discovery that could enhance the thermal and electrical conductivity of composite materials.

While composites provide light weight and strength to the aerospace sector, their widespread use has often been hindered by their poor electrical and thermal conductivities.

“The aerospace industry still relies on metallic structures, in the form of a copper mesh, to provide lightning strike protection and prevent static charge accumulation on the upper surface of carbon fiber composites because of the poor electrical conductivity,” explained Dr. Thomas Pozegic, research associate at the University of Bristol’s Advanced Composite Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS). “This adds weight and makes fabrication with carbon fiber composites difficult.”

However, new research has shown that it is possible to increase thermal and electrical conductivity by growing carbon nanotubes at high density – via chemical vapor deposition – on the surface of carbon fiber composites. The researcher say this technique shows CFRP’s potential to be made multifunctional, while still maintaining its structural integrity.

According to the University of Surrey, this discovery could usher in a new era of composite technology, as sensors, energy harvesting lighting and communication antennae can now be integrated into the structure of aerospace composites.

“This will have wide-reaching benefits in the aerospace industry, from enhancing de-icing solutions to minimizing the formation of fuel vapors at cruising altitudes,” Dr. Ian Hamerton, Reader in Polymers and Composite Materials at ACCIS.

“In the future, carbon nanotube modified carbon fiber composites could lead to exciting possibilities such as energy harvesting and storage structures with self-healing capabilities,” said Dr. Ravi Silva, Director of the Unversity of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute and Head of the Nanoelectronics Centre. “We are currently working on such prototypes and have many ideas including the incorporation of current aerospace/satellite technology in automotive design.”