Nanocomposites: Stronger, Tougher, and Just Plain Better

At Rock West Composites outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, they produce a range of composite products including carbon fiber tubing and panels. Their products are used by numerous industries for fabricating and manufacturing. On the other side of the country, engineers at Georgia Tech are working on what are known as nanocomposites. What they are learning in the lab could make the products Rock West produces much stronger, tougher, and just plain better.

Nanocomposites are a subset of composite materials that are designed and manufactured on a nanoscale. Georgia Tech researcher and nanocomposites expert Chuck Zhang told Composites Manufacturing Magazine in a May 2016 interview that research into nanocomposites goes back to 1970s auto engineering. Since then, the technology has matured to a level at which it now appears nanocomposites are ready to be a major disruptor in composite materials.

Professor Zhang explained that in a nanocomposite, one phase of the material is measured at a nanoscale. He defined a nanoscale as a dimension that is less than 100 nm. In plain English, the nanoscale is extremely small. By working at this scale, engineers are able to manipulate composite matrices to create materials that are stronger, more rigid, and much more resistant to things like heat and electrical current.Early Toyota Research

Zhang credits Toyota for coming up with some of the earliest concepts of nanocomposites. Apparently, Toyota was working with nanomaterials in the late 1970s and early 80s to come up with composite parts that would reduce the weight of their engines. Zhang says Toyota engineers produced a material combining a thermoplastic matrix with nanoclays that was then used to manufacture certain engine parts.

In a 1988 report detailing what they had done, Toyota explained that composite parts intended to be installed in close proximity to the engine block were much stronger than the standard polymer parts they had been using. The composite parts were also more resistant to heat distortion, making them a better option for engine block installation.

What Toyota did was essentially create a better composite material by manipulating matrices at the nanoscale. The fabricated engine pieces were also stronger and more durable.

Nanocomposites in Modern Manufacturing

While most of the focus on nanocomposites has been for the automotive industry, engineering has moved out of the automotive plant and into other areas. For example, Zhang pointed out how nanotubes are now being used to improve golf clubs made with composite materials. The nanotubes’ properties result in a better response when a player swings the club, allowing him or her to hit the ball further and more accurately.

Zhang also pointed out the use of the same nanotubes in tennis racket design. Rackets enhanced with nanocomposites offer more stiffness without adding extra weight, making it possible for tennis players to hit the ball harder and faster.

Rock West Composites says that nanocomposites are important to what they do as well. Whereas the focus on nanocomposites has been mainly on their mechanical properties for the last several decades, more industries are asking how the materials can be beneficial above and beyond those properties.

It turns out that nanocomposites can do a whole host of things. They can improve thermal and electric conductivity, they can be used to act as a barrier against fire and smoke, they can replace other materials like steel and aluminum for a whole host of applications.

Nanocomposites are changing the world of composite engineering by making composites stronger, tougher, and just plain better. They are making a better world for all of us at the same time.