5 Things you didn’t know about composite materials

Composite materials play an important role in many aspects of our day to day lives. From opening up a whole new world of possibilities for houses, architects, and engineers, composites enable future innovations for many industries. Composites offer many benefits; key among them are corrosion resistance, design flexibility, durability, light weight, and strength. Composites have permeated our everyday lives in many products that are used in constructions, medical applications, oil and gas, transportation, sports, aerospace, and many more. So with such a commonplace material all over the world, we put together a guide of some things you may not have known!

1. Composites occur in nature

You probably don’t know it, but wood is a naturally occurring composite material made of cellulose and lignin. The long fibres of cellulose (the reinforcement) are held together by the lignin. The fibres give wood its strength, whilst lignin is the matrix (or natural glue) that binds and stabilises them.

Amazingly, the bones in your body are also a composite! 

They are made from a hard, but brittle material called hydroxyapatite and a soft and flexible protein material called collagen. Collagen on its own would not be strong enough to support the body as a skeleton, but when combined with the hydroxyapatite, it gives the bone the properties it needs.

2. Your office building is probably made of a composite material

Although the word “composite” may sound complex, it’s really just an umbrella term to describe materials that have been put together to make another substance that is superior than the original form in some way – making it stronger, easier to handle or more fire resistant for example. Composites that you will have heard of, but perhaps didn’t realise were composites include, bricks made from mud or clay that are then reinforced with ‘straw’ – a man-made composite which has been in common use for thousands of years. 

Composite materials have been in use as a building material since the late 1800s and became popular for building skyscrapers thanks to its strength and durability. Another great example is concrete which is made from small stones or gravel combined with cement and sand to create a material which resists being squashed under pressure better than any of those things would on their own. 

3. Modern composites are found in almost every industry

The biggest advantage of modern composite materials is that they are light as well as strong. Composites also provide design flexibility because many of them can be moulded into complex shapes. This means that composite materials are increasingly replacing traditional metallic components in several industrial applications, such as aerospace engineering, construction and the automotive and rail industries. In the latest twin-engine wide-body jet airliners developed by European aerospace manufacturer Airbus, for example, over 50% of the aircraft’s structure is made from composites!

The construction industry has also been revolutionised by the adoption of man-made composites. Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) is commonly known as fibreglass and has fast become the material of choice for the demanding building and construction industry. The combination of the high-strength glass fibre and highly-resilient plastic used by Dura Composites to manufacture its GRP ensures that it’s strong, lightweight and both chemical and corrosion resistant.

Dura Composites GRP is easy to install, durable and low maintenance and can be used to create profiles, frames and structural alternatives to steel for applications such as stairs, walkways, structural treads, riser void coverings and ladder systems.

4.  Designing with composite materials doesn’t have to cost the earth

Although they can initially be more expensive to produce than traditional materials, it’s not just the initial outlay costs that you should consider when deciding on material for your project. It’s important to consider the whole lifecycle of the material and all its associated costs. This includes installation, how long it will last and what kind of maintenance it will require to keep it functioning and looking its best.

GRP products offer considerably lower life cycle costs due to their low maintenance, corrosion-resistant and impact-resistant characteristics compared with traditional materials, and market leading products come with reassuring warranties. so you can design and buy with confidence.

If it’s a wood look you need, such as decking or cladding, then wood plastic composite has come a long way in the past few years, with today’s composite timbers reflecting the beauty of natural and exotic hardwoods, and can help keep labour costs down. 

5. The growth opportunity for composites is phenomenal, and Dura Composites can help ensure your business is able to capitalise on it.

From the outset, the UK has been leading the way developing scientific research into new composite materials and supporting technology. As a result the opportunities to transform the rail, energy, construction and other sectors through the use of composites are huge.

One of the major inhibitors to the uptake of composites in new sectors has been the lack of appropriate regulations, codes and standards. As a market leader, Dura Composites has committed to work with regulators and standards bodies to adapt regulations to enable the use of composites, as well as establishing a database of materials tests and capabilities.

In the Rail Industry for example, Dura Composites have been working closely with Network Rail to put in place stringent fire safety standards for composite products used for important applications such as station platforms, bridge walkways and stairs and driver walkways.

All Network Rail projects are obligated to use products that meet British and European Fire Safety Standards, but until recently, these tests had not been conducted for GRP composite materials used in the rail sector. Dura Composites worked with both the railway infrastructure and construction industries, including Network Rail, London Underground, Crossrail and major rail contractors to ensure that classifications were published that cover both structural and non-structural applications and include fire tests such as flame spread, burn time and load bearing testing. The findings of the tests were that effective composite solutions exceeded all Network Rail specified fire safety standards.

If this article has shown anything it’s that composite materials are ever-present in a multitude of industries. They’re not new, but the constant evolution is helping to develop better solutions for everyone to benefit from.