advantages and disadvantages of composite materials in aircraft
Advantages and Disadvantages of Composite Materials in Aircraft
Composite materials are a commonly-used resource in the aviation industry, and for good reason; their unique properties let engineers overcome design obstacles that would be otherwise impossible to solve. Common composite materials include fiberglass, carbon fiber, and fiber-reinforced matrix systems. Fiberglass is the most common, and was first widely used in boats and automobiles in the 1950’s, the same decade Boeing introduced the material in its passenger jets. Today, aircraft structures are often made up of 50 to 70 percent composite materials. While composite materials have many advantages, there are also some downsides that some fear pose safety risks in the field of aviation. In this blog, we will break down the greatest pros and cons for composite materials in aviation.
The greatest advantage of composite materials is how little they weigh compared to metals such as steel, titanium, and even aluminum. Composite materials can drastically cut down on the weight of an aircraft, which leads to better performance and improved fuel efficiency. Fiber-reinforced matrix systems are often stronger than traditional aluminum in most aircraft, and provide a smoother, more aerodynamic surface, which also improves performance and fuel efficiency. Composite materials do not corrode as easily as other structure types, and they do not crack from metal fatigue the way aluminum does. Instead, they flex, which lets them last longer than metal, which in turn means lower maintenance and repair costs.
However, the greatest disadvantage of composite materials is that they do not break easily. This may seem oxymoronic, but this means that it is difficult to tell that the interior structure of the aircraft has been damaged. Because aluminum bends and dents more easily, it is easier to detect a need for repairs. Composite materials are also more difficult and more expensive to repair than metals, although it can be argued that the long-term savings of using a more resilient material off-set this cost.
Another issue is that composite materials use a type of resin, which weakens at temperatures around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it necessary to take extra precautions against fires. Burning composite materials can release toxic fumes and micro-particles into the air, both of which are serious health risks. At temperatures above 300 degrees, structural failure can occur.