Composites Manufacturing Magazine

Transformative Technologies

Five innovations that made news in 2017 aim to upset the status quo.

Disruptive technologies can change the business landscape by creating new markets or transforming existing ones. In the fast-paced composites market, new materials, processes and applications crop up frequently. As the year winds down, let’s take a look at five disrupters from 2017. Some of them have widespread implications for markets like automotive and aerospace, while others seem more fanciful. (How would you like to wear a composite exosuit that makes you stronger and more efficient?) But they all could change the industry, if not tomorrow then sometime down the road.

The Disrupter: The Fast RTM System

Broader Implications: The potential to mass produce structural composite automotive parts.

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread use of composites in automotive production is productivity rates. A consortium of industry partners has developed an automated process capable of producing composite structural parts in a two-minute cycle time, a critical industry metric.

The consortium is led by a French institute, IRT M2P (The Institutes of Technological Research – Materials, Metallurgy and Processes). The long list of partners is evidence that collaboration is key to success in today’s highly complex world, with each one bringing specific expertise to the table: PINETTE P.E.I (press system and platform integration), Arkema and Hexion (resins), Chomarat (reinforcement materials), Compose (tooling), SISE (thermoregulation systems) and the Institut de Soudure (closed mold process). The project also received support from OEM partners and Tier 1 suppliers Renault, Faurecia and Hutchinson, which provided integration and design expertise.

“These companies represent the whole composite sector – material suppliers, equipment suppliers, composites experts and end users,” says Maxime Kowalski, composites activities manager at IRT M2P. “The whole consortium worked together to provide the solutions that would make the project a success.”

The Fast RTM system, shown here with a GFRP demonstration part in front, is capable of producing 500,000 structural parts a year on a single work cell. Photo Credit: IRT M2P

The goal of the consortium, which began its work in 2013, was to develop an industrial-scale platform capable of producing net shape, functional, structural parts up to 3 me2 (more than 32 square feet). At the heart of the system – called Fast RTM – is PINETTE’s ECS-PRESS (Eco, Compact, Sustainable). The short-stroke press has two six-axis robots for material handling and allows for compression resin transfer molding (C-RTM) – essentially a combination of compression molding and resin transfer molding.

A preform is placed in the open mold cavity, which is then partially closed. Next, resin is injected into the mold gap at low cavity pressure, thereby partially saturating the preform with resin. Afterward, the mold is completely closed and a compression stroke presses the resin through the preform, completely saturating it. The platform is compatible with both thermoset and thermoplastic resins.

“The platform produces a better and faster impregnation of the part than with RTM and makes the process flexible and adaptable to the needs of car manufacturers,” says Kowalsky. In addition to automated loading and unloading, the Fast RTM system is fully instrumented with automatic data acquisition, process parameters traceability, energy consumption measurement systems and online, nondestructive control systems.

Kowalsky says now that the platform “has proven the feasibility and reliability of the production of large and complex parts” in the two-minute cycle time, the system is available for automotive, aerospace, railway and other transportation sectors that require high production rates. In addition, the consortium is now working on the Fast FORM project – a complementary project aimed at developing preforming processes and equipment for low-cost, fast cycle time production.

The Disrupter: Wind Blade Prototype

Broader Implications: The possibility to quickly produce blades that are stronger, cheaper and more energy efficient.

Last winter, IACMI – The Composites Institute unveiled a wind blade prototype that’s small in size – only nine meters long – but has big potential to transform the wind energy market. IACMI led a team of industrial and government partners who worked together to fabricate an advanced technology wind turbine blade featuring several innovations, including continuous fiber reinforced thermoplastic parts and exterior shell components produced with less than half of the normal carbon dioxide emissions.

“The work we are doing today will possibly revolutionize the industry five or 10 years down the road,” said Derek Berry, IACMI Wind Technology Area Director, in a YouTube video about the project. “Companies like GE Wind and Siemens and Vestas are looking at the technology we are working on to help them bring down the cost of wind energy, to build more efficient blades in the future and thus be more competitive in the marketplace with wind energy.”

A team lays up the 9-meter advanced technology demonstrator blade at IACMI’s Wind Technology Area in Denver. Photo Credit: IACMI – The Composites Institute

The prototype blade, which is based on designs from previous work conducted the Department of Energy, has the geometric features of a megawatt-size blade that might be 30 to 50 meters long. It utilizes several material and manufacturing innovations, including a thermoplastic resin system.

The blade shells and shear web were infused with Arkema’s Elium® reactive thermoplastic resin system, a liquid resin that’s processed like a thermoset, but cures at room temperature. According to Berry, the prototype was the first blade produced in the U.S. using a thermoplastic resin system. The resin speeds up production. For example, the team did the shear web infusion using the Elium 188 system and got a wet-out of the entire part in about 30 minutes. The shear web was demolded and had its full-strength properties in only three hours – much faster than thermoset materials, according to the YouTube video.

Another innovation is specialized sizing – a coating on the fiberglass itself – that is fully compatible with the resin system. The sizing, provided by Johns Manville, helps ensure that the resin and fibers work well together and that the load transfers to the reinforcement so the composite doesn’t fail at the interface.

In addition, the blade features a pultruded spar cap produced by Strongwell that uses Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s low-cost carbon fiber combined with Huntsman’s polyurethane resins. “The larger and longer the blade gets, the more it needs very stiff materials and carbon fiber becomes a more attractive material,” says Berry. The blade also incorporates recycled PET foam from Creative Foam as a core material, so there’s post-consumer material in the blade itself.

In addition to the companies already named, other partners on the project include TPI Composites Inc., DowAksa USA, Chomarat USA, Composites One, SikaAkson and Chem-Trend. The prototype is just the start of the group’s work, said Berry. “We’re showing what we can do, but we have a lot more work to do,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to commercialize this technology.”

The Disrupter: NASA’s Structural Carbon Nanotubes

Broader Implications: The potential to save weight, reduce mass and improve performance in aerostructures.

In the aerospace industry, composite nanotechnology has long been a topic of great interest. In 2012, a study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed that it is possible to develop carbon nanotube fibers with tensile strengths as high as 60 Gigapascals (GPa) – which is more than 10 times as high as conventional intermediate modulus carbon fibers. Other NASA analyses have shown that composites using carbon nanotube reinforcements could lead to a 30 percent reduction in the total mass of a launch vehicle.

Earlier this year, a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) on a payload in NASA’s SubTec-7 mission flight became the first structural component made with carbon nanotubes flight tested by NASA. To industry outsiders, this raised an interesting question: If composite nanotubes are so strong, what was holding NASA back from flight testing them in a structural component? According to Mike Meador, program element manager for lightweight materials and manufacturing at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, the answer is that historically, carbon nanotubes have not been available for testing in “useful formats” like fabrics or fibers.

This composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) recently became the first carbon nanotube-based structural component flight tested by NASA. Photo Credit: NASA

That was, until Merrimack, N.H.-based manufacturer Nanocomp starting producing carbon nanotube-based yarns and fibers on a large enough scale to be incorporated in a structural application. Meador says his team at NASA worked with Nanocomp to tailor the mechanical and tensile properties of Nanocomp’s products, which could act as a drop-in replacement for components made with traditional CFRP.

The team opted to use a modified filament winding process that involved lining the outside of the COPV with the nanotube-based fibers because the diameter of the fibers was so much smaller than conventional carbon fibers. A COPV, Meador says, is dominated by tensile properties and would therefore be a good demonstration of the nanotubes’ potential.

Meador says his team was able to achieve its main goal of the flight test, which was to use the carbon nanotube-based COPV as a “gas storage bottle” for a cold gas structure system.

“[The COPV] did exactly what we expected it to do,” Meador says.

NASA is currently doing post-flight testing to assess whether the flight had any impact on the mechanical properties of the COPV. So far, the biggest thing Meador has been surprised by is that conventional carbon fiber composites “behave according to the rule of mixtures,” whereas carbon nanotube composites do not.

“We found that the strength of the [nanotube] composite was actually better than the strength of the fiber reinforcement, and that’s not what you see in conventional carbon fibers,” Meador says.

The Disrupter: R3FIBER Recycling Technology

Broader Implications: The potential to recover and reuse fibers from end-of-life composites.

There’s a big push within the composites industry to develop scalable recycling methodologies. One of the solutions that’s received lots of press is Thermolyzer technology from CHZ Technologies, which you can read about online at www.compositesmanufacturingmagazine.com. But other companies are working on composite recycling, too, including a start-up whose name says it all – Thermal Recycling of Composites (TRC).

TRC created the R3FIBER technology to recycle wind turbine blades and other composites at the end of their serviceable lives and obtain high-quality fibers, energy and fuels. “We’ve focused on recycling of composites due to the huge quantity of waste that’s already been dumped into landfills and because of the growing use of [FRP] materials, which are increasing nine to 12 percent every year,” says Oriol Grau, CEO of the Barcelona-based company.

R3FIBER technology from TRC uses a thermochemical process to recycle composites. Photo Credit: TRC

Grau and a team from the Spanish National Research Council’s National Center for Metallurgical Research began developing R3FIBER in 2008, built a pilot plant in 2014 and officially launched TRC last year. They are currently designing a pre-industrial plant with 100 tons of nominal capacity, with plans to build the facility in 2018.

R3FIBER utilizes a thermochemical process that converts the resins of combustible gases and liquid fuels into high-quality glass or carbon fibers that can be reused and retain 70 to 90 percent of the mechanical properties of virgin fibers, says Grau. The process can be used on both GFRP and CFRP with different resins, primarily epoxy and phenolic. “Afterward, the fibers can be used to manufacture new composites, and the fuel obtained during the process can be revalorized into the market,” says Grau.

Grau didn’t share further details of TRC’s patented recycling process. However, the company has signed agreements with strategic collaborators, including EDP Renewables (EDPR), one of the world’s largest wind energy producers. EDPR and TRC will work together to recycle damaged and end-of-life wind turbine blades. TRC also is part of Climate-KIC, a public-private partnership created by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology to focus on climate change and create economically-viable products to mitigate climate change.

While R3FIBER is in the scale-up phase now, TRC hopes to commercialize the technology. TRC also is developing new materials and products made of recycled fibers. Grau says his company could provide a viable solution for composites manufacturers, consumers and the environment. “Thanks to our technology, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly fibers will be available,” he says.

The Disrupter: Composite Exosuit

Broader Implications: Human assistive devices could increase productivity, efficiency and safety.

In recent years, a popular research trend is the idea of science inspired by science fiction. One retail giant, home improvement company Lowe’s, created a laboratory it says uses “narrative-driven innovation” to create new technologies to “disrupt the future.” Earlier this year, Lowe’s Innovation Labs teamed up with Alan Asbeck, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, to create a superhero-inspired exosuit designed to help employees lift and move items through the store more efficiently.

The exosuit features unidirectional, prepreg CFRP beams that go behind an employee’s legs, with CFRP straps around the thighs that connect to the beams. The exosuits also incorporate CFRP straps, like a backpack, for an employee’s shoulders, and a belt across the middle to connect the shoulder straps.

Lowe’s Innovation Labs collaborated with Virginia Tech to create an exosuit that can help employees move items more efficiently. Photo Credit: Virginia Tech

As Asbeck explains, the suit works like a giant bow and arrow. As an employee bends down to pick up something, their body falls forward under the influence of gravity. The downward motion of the torso loads up the carbon fiber into what Asbeck calls a “curved C shape,” like pulling on the string of a bow and arrow. When this happens, the energy in the person’s body is transferred to the exosuit and is stored there until the person stands back up.

“And then when you go to stand back up, it pulls up on your body, on your torso, and basically brings you back into an upright position,” Asbeck explains.

During the research process to develop the exosuit prototype, Asbeck’s team explored several material options to store kinetic energy. They started with steel springs, but soon realized that in order to effectively store energy, they would need an inordinately large and heavy spring. Employing CFRP, on the other hand, meant the team could use less material. Asbeck adds that carbon fiber can bend very well and has “sort of a loose spring construction,” meaning you can fit it right next to the body and it doesn’t outwardly protrude very much.

“You’d have to wear it around all day, so you want it to be as light as possible,” Asbeck says. “You don’t want [the exosuit] to stick out a lot because then you’d be bumping into things as you walk around or maybe you wouldn’t be able to fit in a narrow aisle.”

For the next version of the exosuit, Asbeck says the goal is to drive down production costs so he is considering using GFRP.

Innovation on Display at CAMX

On Tuesday, Dec. 12., in Orlando, Fla., at the CAMX General Session, winners of the prestigious Combined Strength Award and Unsurpassed Innovation Award will be announced. Later in the day, the Awards for Composites Excellence (ACE) will be presented. The awards recognize innovations that have the potential to significantly impact composites and advanced materials. This year, IACMI is a finalist for the Combined Strength Award for its 9-meter turbine blade. See the blade and other innovations in the CAMX Exhibit Hall!