Manufacturing materials of the future – Smart composites

Manufacturing materials are undergoing a huge change, particularly with the advent of composite materials that include components such as carbon fibre and graphene.
Composite materials have been around since mud and straw were mixed together to build ancient bricks. Concrete and fibreglass are also among the long line of materials that are stronger or more useful combined than in their constituent parts.
“The latest BMW I3 and I7, and about 50 per cent of the Boeing 787 are now made out of carbon fibre composites,” says Dr Nishar Hameed, a Group Leader at Swinburne’s Manufacturing Futures Research Institute and specialist in next generation of ‘smart’ polymers and composite materials.
“Carbon fibre based composites are used because they are eight times lighter than steel.”
These lighter materials for cars and planes – previously made from steel and aluminium – mean that the vehicles use less energy. The reduction in fuel use also reduces costs and carbon emissions. Naturally, the automotive, aerospace, mining, construction and other industries are all deeply interested in the potential of these materials.

Understanding smart composites

The next step is into smart composites.
“Most composites are not smart. They’re just ‘dumb’ materials that don’t share information,” says Dr Hameed.
“We can integrate sensors into smart materials so that we can learn about their performance, durability, structure and whether they are experiencing stress or damage. Smart materials are living materials.”
Graphene is the component that makes composite materials smart. A highly conductive nanomaterial, when graphene is embedded in steel, concrete or fabric – it can conduct electric signals, allowing it to act as a sensor.
Graphene made from graphite can be made into nano-platelets, which means it can be produced in high volume at low cost. The graphene can be added in small amounts to make nearly any composite conductive, sensing and smart.

Exploring the possibilities

Dr Lachlan Hyde, a research engineer, is excited about the possibilities.
“You can put them into liquids. You can paint it on the wall and turn your wall into a sensor.  You can add it to carbon fibre and make that a sensing material as well. Think about an aeroplane that can give you real-time feedback on its aerodynamics,” he says.
“The material will be able to tell you about the performance of large structures,” confirms Dr Hameed.
“It will be able to predict when maintenance is required as well as when damage has occurred before it becomes critical.”
Abstract Submission Deadline: 15th of October, 2018