Composites offer all the expected advantages. The primary benefit is weight reduction, which yields decreased fuel consumption and increased cargo capacity. Composites also are resistant to corrosion and fatigue. Under the guidance of Comer and Manolakis, a team of four research engineers at the Irish Composites Centre will determine which particular FRP materials make the most sense for large-length vessels.

The team will select the most suitable material constituents, then manufacture test panels, extract test coupons and provide mechanical test data. The FRP materials they select will ultimately be used by a FIBRESHIP shipyard to manufacture a demonstrator component measuring approximately 8 meters cubed.

Comer’s group has just begun work on material selection. “We are trying to cast as big a net as possible and look at a wide range of resin classes, from polyester and epoxies to vinyl esters and so on,” he says. “We are even looking at some infusible thermoplastics that have fairly recently come on the market.”

Consideration of manufacturing processes is critical, too, in material selection. “We need to look at processes that are compatible with what shipyards are already using,” says Comer. “In addition, are the materials compatible with new manufacturing processes that will be coming down the line?” Liquid resin infusion is one of the candidate manufacturing processes because of the size of the components that will be produced and the suitability for use in shipyards, adds Comer.

The team at the Irish Composites Centre is making similar decisions about fibers. “Glass has traditionally been used on smaller vessels, but carbon has been creeping in recently, as well as basalt and aramid fibers,” says Comer. “Ultimately, we will look at a wide range of materials and try to come up with combinations that are deemed most suitable for applications in longer length ships.”

While Comer’s group is focused mainly on mechanical characteristics of the FRP materials, other FIBRESHIP research partners will consider fire resistance, smoke toxicity and material joining techniques. “The down selection process for materials will be challenging,” admits Comer. “There is a huge range of considerations. How do you weigh all of them accordingly and select a combination of materials you can get agreement on?”

That’s the challenge FIBRESHIP’s 18 partners have wholeheartedly taken on together. Europe accounts for approximately 40 percent of the world’s civilian and merchant shipbuilding, according to FIBRESHIP. The continent’s 150-plus large shipyards would like to retain – and even grow – that market share. So there’s a lot riding on this project, for both the shipbuilding and composites industries.