Nano-modification Enhances Conductivity of Composites

05 January 2017

A new composite technology pioneered by UK researchers and commercial partner aerospace company Bombardier improves the electrical and thermal conductivity of conventional composite materials.

The technology, which involves growing carbon nanotubes on the surface of carbon fibers, could have wide-reaching benefits—particularly for the aerospace industry—by improving the performance of lightweight composites.

The research, conducted at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and the University of Bristol’s Advanced Composite Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS), demonstrates the potential of carbon fiber reinforced plastic to be made multifunctional while still maintaining its structural integrity.

Carbon fiber composites, made by reinforcing carbon fiber within a plastic, have seen growing demand in various industries that require strong yet lightweight materials. However, researchers say, wider application of the composites has been hindered by inherently poor electrical and thermal conductivities.

The UK research demonstrates that it is now possible to impart these crucial properties by growing nanomaterials, specifically carbon nanotubes, on the surface of the carbon fibers.

“The material that we have developed utilizes high-quality carbon nanotubes grown at a high density to allow electrical transport throughout the composite material,” explained Thomas Pozegic, research associate at ACCIS.

ATI Director Ravi Silva. Exciting possibilities for carbon nanotube-modified carbon fiber composites. Credit: University of Surrey  ATI Director Ravi Silva. Exciting possibilities for carbon nanotube-modified carbon fiber composites. Credit: University of Surrey The research also has shown that carbon nanotubes can significantly enhance the thermal conductivity of carbon fiber composites. For the aerospace industry in particular, this could have broad benefits—from enhancing de-icing solutions to minimizing the formation of fuel vapors at cruising altitudes, researchers suggest.

Moreover the discovery opens up an array of new possibilities for carbon fiber reinforced plastic in sensors, communication antennae, lighting and other applications.

“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 Ravi Silva, ATI director 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.”

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