The composites industry has been pursuing an admirable list of goals since its inception. Among them are cost reductions, recycling, and better ways of tooling. The next big goal for the industry is something entirely different. The brightest minds in composites are working on new materials that are fire-resistant without a significant weight penalty.
A statement found on the EU’s CORDIS website perfectly encapsulates the need to develop fire-resistant composites:
“Composite materials, consisting of reinforced carbon or glass fibres in an organic resin matrix, are an established technology for producing lightweight structures in aerospace and other transport sectors. However, they can decompose and collapse in a fire, releasing smoke and toxic chemicals as well as heat.”
Fire resistance is really not the issue when you’re talking about things like bicycle frames and tennis rackets, explains Rock West Composites. Airplanes and train cars are a different matter. When you are building the fuselage of a commercial airliner primarily of carbon fiber, there’s always the worry of how that fuselage will hold up in a fire.
Building a New European Railway
A good example of what engineers are up against is found in a brand-new rail project in Europe. The Mat4Rail project, now underway in Spain, is intended to produce the next generation of commercial rail travel in Western Europe. Project officials know that composites will play a major role in manufacturing the lighter, tougher cars the project demands. But they also that the materials they currently have to work with do not meet European standards for fire, smoke, and toxicity.
The race is on to come up with new composites as quickly as possible. The EU will never approve future composite-heavy rail projects until fire resistance thresholds are met. At the same time, engineers are unwilling to sacrifice any of the weight gains composite materials offer. Someone has to find a solution that satisfies both parties.
The other consideration Mat4Rail is looking at involves a modular design for all rolling stock. Modular construction would reduce the cost of future rail projects by allowing standardized cars to be mass-produced in a manufacturing setting, resulting in rolling stock that could be deployed on any rail line in Europe.
Composites play a role in this goal as well. Uniform composite panels can be fabricated in one location and assembled in another. Uniform seats, doors, and cabinetry can be manufactured and sent throughout Europe for easy assembly. In short, precision fabricated composite parts will be a big help to modular construction.
Researching Fire Resistance
The EU is as serious as it can be about developing new, fire-resistant composite materials. EU leaders have gone so far as to fund a project known as FIRE-RESIST, a project being operated by a consortium of 18 partners representing the aerospace, maritime, and railway industries. The project is researching a number of different materials that can be added to existing composites to improve fire resistance.
For example, the consortium has already come up with new polymer composites, fire-resistant polymer resins, and multi-layered metallic laminates. Every new material they produce is put through a series of stressful fire tests that measure whether they adhere to fire standards or not. The materials also have to be tested for heat transfer, deflection, and load bearing.
There is little doubt that the demand for fire-resistant composites will grow in the future. When it comes to mass transportation, there is little choice in the matter. The planes, trains, and ships of the future have to be more fire resistant in order to improve passenger safety.