Aerospace Composite Parts, Without the Autoclave
James Anderton posted on January 21, 2020 |
Carbon nanotube film includes resistance heating embedded into the part.

Modern aerospace structures are commonly built up from layers of carbon composite weaves which are piled, then baked (sometimes with pressure or vacuum) to consolidate the material into a strong, light part.

A team of MIT researchers have developed a technique that may eliminate the curing oven or autoclave in many assemblies, detailed in a paper published in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.

“If you’re making a primary structure like a fuselage or wing, you need a pressure vessel, or autoclave, the size of a two- or three-story building, which itself requires time and money to pressurize,” says Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “These things are massive pieces of infrastructure. Now we can make primary structure materials without autoclave pressure, so we can get rid of all that infrastructure.”

Large autoclaves are essential in large scale composite manufacturing.
Large autoclaves are essential in large scale composite manufacturing.

Wardle’s co-authors on the paper are lead author and MIT postdoc Jeonyoo Lee, and Seth Kessler of Metis Design Corporation, an aerospace structural health monitoring company based in Boston.

Embedded Heating is the Key

In 2015, Lee led the team, along with another member of Wardle’s lab, in creating a method to make aerospace-grade composites without requiring an oven to fuse the materials together. Instead of placing layers of material inside an oven to cure, the researchers essentially wrapped them in an ultrathin film of carbon nanotubes (CNTs). When they applied an electric current to the film, the CNTs acted like a nanoscale electric blanket and quickly generated heat, causing the materials within to cure and fuse together.

With this out-of-oven, or OoO, technique, the team was able to produce composites as strong as the materials made in conventional airplane manufacturing ovens, using only 1 percent of the energy.

The researchers next looked for ways to make high-performance composites without the use of large, high-pressure autoclaves — building-sized vessels that generate high enough pressures to press materials together, squeezing out any voids, or air pockets, at their interface.

“There’s microscopic surface roughness on each ply of a material, and when you put two plys together, air gets trapped between the rough areas, which is the primary source of voids and weakness in a composite,” Wardle says. “An autoclave can push those voids to the edges and get rid of them.”

Researchers including Wardle’s group have explored “out-of-autoclave,” or OoA, techniques to manufacture composites without using the huge machines. But most of these techniques have produced composites where nearly 1 percent of the material contains voids, which can compromise a material’s strength and lifetime. In comparison, aerospace-grade composites made in autoclaves are of such high quality that any voids they contain are negligible and not easily measured.

“The problem with these OoA approaches is also that the materials have been specially formulated, and none are qualified for primary structures such as wings and fuselages,” Wardle says. “They’re making some inroads in secondary structures, such as flaps and doors, but they still get voids.”

A composite wing assembly for the Airbus A350XWB.
A composite wing assembly for the Airbus A350XWB.

Nano-Capillaries Eliminate Air Pockets

Part of Wardle’s work focuses on developing nanoporous networks — ultrathin films made from aligned, microscopic material such as carbon nanotubes, that can be engineered with exceptional properties, including color, strength and electrical capacity. The researchers wondered whether these nanoporous films could be used in place of giant autoclaves to squeeze out voids between two material layers using a form of capillary action.

The researchers proposed that if a thin film of carbon nanotubes were sandwiched between two materials, then as the materials were heated and softened, the capillaries between the carbon nanotubes should have a surface energy and geometry such that they would draw the materials in toward each other, rather than leaving a void between them. Lee calculated that the capillary pressure should be larger than the pressure applied by the autoclaves.

The researchers tested their idea in the lab by growing films of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, then laying the films between layers of materials that are typically used in the autoclave-based manufacturing of primary aircraft structures. They wrapped the layers in a second film of carbon nanotubes, to which they applied an electric current to generate heat. They observed that as the materials heated and softened in response, they were pulled into the capillaries of the intermediate CNT film.

The resulting composite lacked voids, similar to aerospace-grade composites that are produced in an autoclave. The researchers subjected the composites to strength tests, attempting to push the layers apart, the idea being that voids, if present, would allow the layers to separate more easily.

“In these tests, we found that our out-of-autoclave composite was just as strong as the gold-standard autoclave process composite used for primary aerospace structures,” Wardle says.

The team will next look for ways to scale up the pressure-generating CNT film. In their experiments, they worked with samples measuring several centimeters wide — large enough to demonstrate that nanoporous networks can pressurize materials and prevent voids from forming. To make this process viable for manufacturing entire wings and fuselages, researchers will have to find ways to manufacture CNT and other nanoporous films at a much larger scale.

Composite Boeing 787s on the line at the firm’s Charleston, SC facility.
Composite Boeing 787s on the line at the firm’s Charleston, SC facility.

“There are ways to make really large blankets of this stuff, and there’s continuous production of sheets, yarns, and rolls of material that can be incorporated in the process,” Wardle says.

He plans also to explore different formulations of nanoporous films, engineering capillaries of varying surface energies and geometries, to be able to pressurize and bond other high-performance materials.

“Now we have this new material solution that can provide on-demand pressure where you need it,” Wardle says. “Beyond airplanes, most of the composite production in the world is composite pipes for water, gas, oil—all the things that go in and out of our lives. This could make all those things, without the oven and autoclave infrastructure.”

This research was supported, in part, by Airbus, ANSYS, Embraer, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, Saertex, and Teijin Carbon America through MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace Structures (NECST) Consortium.


With files from Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office


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