Quest for New Resins Takes Flight
experimental polymer composite panel for aerospace interiors

Ryan Hackler, left, a graduate student at Western Washington University, shows Gov. Jay Inslee an experimental polymer composite panel for aerospace interiors while Professor Nicole Hoekstra looks on.

Project: Next generation of aerospace resins
School: Western Washington University
Location: Bellingham, Wash.
Principal Investigator: David Rider

In February, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the plastics and composites engineering facilities at Western Washington University (WWU). Students demonstrated a handful of research projects that could ultimately be commercialized by businesses throughout the state – music to the governor’s ears. One of the graduate students who caught Inslee’s attention was Ryan Hackler, who shared research on development of the next generation of resins for aerospace composites.

The project falls under the umbrella of WWU’s Partnership for Industry Research & Education (PAIRED) program. A team of students has partnered with Zodiac Cabin & Structures, a manufacturer of structural composites and aircraft interiors, to find a replacement for traditional thermoset resins used in composites. They are led by David Rider, assistant professor of chemistry and engineering, and Nicole Hoekstra and Nicole Larson, also professors of engineering.

“Thermosets are well-rooted in aerospace for good reason,” says Rider. “They are mechanically robust, and there’s plenty of research to guide the manufacturing process.” But Zodiac Cabin & Structures is forward-thinking. Certain compounds contained in resins and released during cure are considered hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “The threshold is becoming more strict over time, and there may be a time when we need to avoid phenol formaldehyde resins,” says Rider. “We’re trying to get Zodiac to the point where it has a backup resin system ready to go.”

WWU teamed up with Zodiac Cabin & Structures nearly three years ago, when the subsidiary of French company Zodiac Aerospace approached Rider’s team with a manufacturing issue. Due to stricter requirements, distortion or warpage needed to be more tightly controlled. University researchers and Zodiac Cabin & Structures audited the entire manufacturing process to improve the process. “That was a great starting point to our relationship because we saw everything the company did from start to finish,” says Rider. It also led to the resin research, which is funded by grants from the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation and Zodiac Aerospace.