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Complete Guide to Composites, Part 1

Types and strengths of materials

courtesy of SP Composites

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At a glance...

  • Types of composites
  • Ratios of fibre to resin
  • Geometry of fibres
  • Types of loading
  • Strength comparisons
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It’s easy to get confused about composites. Wet lay-ups, vacuum bagging, auto-claves, pre-preg, pultrusions – even the language seems like it comes from a different planet! But in this series, courtesy of SP Composites, we’ll give you a complete grounding in the technology.

In its most basic form a composite material is one which is composed of at least two elements working together to produce material properties that are different to the properties of those elements on their own. In practice, most composites consist of a bulk material (the ‘matrix’), and a reinforcement of some kind, added primarily to increase the strength and stiffness of the matrix. This reinforcement is usually in fibre form. Today, the most common man-made composites can be divided into three main groups:

  • Polymer Matrix Composites (PMC) – These are the most common and will be discussed here. Also known as FRP - Fibre Reinforced Polymers (or Plastics) - these materials use a polymer-based resin as the matrix, and a variety of fibres such as glass, carbon and aramid (Kevlar) as the reinforcement.

  • Metal Matrix Composites (MMC) - Increasingly found in the automotive industry, these materials use a metal such as aluminium as the matrix, and reinforce it with fibres such as silicon carbide.

  • Ceramic Matrix Composites (CMC) - Used in very high temperature environments, these materials use a ceramic as the matrix and reinforce it with short fibres, or whiskers such as those made from silicon carbide and boron nitride.

Polymer Matrix Composites

Resin systems such as epoxies and polyesters have limited use for the manufacture of structures on their own, since their mechanical properties are not very high when compared to, for example, most metals. However, they have desirable properties, most notably their ability to be easily formed into complex shapes.

Materials such as glass, aramid and boron have extremely high tensile and compressive strength but in ‘solid form’ these properties are not readily apparent. This is due to the fact that when stressed, random surface flaws will cause each material to crack and fail well below its theoretical ‘breaking point’. To overcome this problem, the material is produced in fibre form, so that, although the same number of random flaws will occur, they will be restricted to a small number of fibres with the remainder exhibiting the material’s theoretical strength. Therefore a bundle of fibres will reflect more accurately the optimum performance of the material.

However, fibres alone can only exhibit tensile properties along the fibre’s length, in the same way as fibres in a rope. It is when the resin systems are combined with reinforcing fibres such as glass, carbon and aramid, that exceptional properties can be obtained. The resin matrix spreads the load applied to the composite between each of the individual fibres and also protects the fibres from damage caused by abrasion and impact.

High strengths and stiffnesses, ease of moulding complex shapes, high environmental resistance - all coupled with low densities - make the resultant composite superior to metals for many applications.

Since PMC combine a resin system and reinforcing fibres, the properties of the resulting composite material will combine something of the properties of the resin on its own with something of the fibres on their own.

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Overall, the properties of the composite are determined by:

- The properties of the fibre

- The properties of the resin

- The ratio of fibre to resin in the composite (Fibre Volume Fraction)

- The geometry and orientation of the fibres in the composite

The first two will be dealt with in more detail later. The ratio of the fibre to resin derives largely from the manufacturing process used to combine resin with fibre. However, it is also influenced by the type of resin system used, and the form in which the fibres are incorporated. In general, since the mechanical properties of fibres are much higher than those of resins, the higher the fibre volume fraction the higher will be the mechanical properties of the resultant composite. In practice there are limits to this, since the fibres need to be fully coated in resin to be effective, and there will be an optimum packing of the generally circular cross-section fibres. In addition, the manufacturing process used to combine fibre with resin leads to varying amounts of imperfections and air inclusions. Typically, with a common hand lay-up process as widely used in the boat-building industry, a limit for FVF is approximately 30-40%. With the higher quality, more sophisticated and precise processes used in the aerospace industry, FVF’s approaching 70% can be successfully obtained.

The geometry of the fibres in a composite is also important since fibres have their highest mechanical properties along their lengths, rather than across their widths. This leads to the highly anisotropic properties of composites, where, unlike metals, the mechanical properties of the composite are likely to be very different when tested in different directions. This means that it is very important when considering the use of composites to understand, at the design stage, both the magnitude and the direction of the applied loads. When correctly accounted for, these anisotropic properties can be very advantageous since it is only necessary to put material where loads will be applied, and thus redundant material is avoided. (But clearly if these properties are NOT accounted for, you’ve got big problems! – Ed)

It is also important to note that with metals the properties of the materials are largely determined by the material supplier, and the person who fabricates the materials into a finished structure can do almost nothing to change those ‘in-built’ properties. However, a composite material is formed at the same time as the structure is itself being fabricated. This means that the person who is making the structure is creating the properties of the resultant composite material, and so the manufacturing processes they use have an unusually critical part to play in determining the performance of the resultant structure.


There are four main direct loads that any material in a structure has to withstand: tension, compression, shear and flexure.

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Tension - this diagram shows a tensile load applied to a composite. The response of a composite to tensile loads is very dependent on the tensile stiffness and strength properties of the reinforcement fibres, since these are far higher than the resin system on its own.

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Compression - this diagram shows a composite under a compressive load. Here, the adhesive and stiffness properties of the resin system are crucial, as it is the role of the resin to maintain the fibres as straight columns and to prevent them from buckling.

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Shear - this diagram shows a composite experiencing a shear load. This load is trying to slide adjacent layers of fibres over each other. Under shear loads the resin plays the major role, transferring the stresses across the composite. For the composite to perform well under shear loads, the resin element must not only exhibit good mechanical properties but must also have high adhesion to the reinforcement fibre. The interlaminar shear strength (ILSS) of a composite is often used to indicate this property in a multilayer composite (‘laminate’).

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Flexure - flexural loads are really a combination of tensile, compression and shear loads. When loaded as shown, the upper face is put into compression, the lower face into tension and the central portion of the laminate experiences shear.

Comparison with Other Structural Materials

Due to the factors described above, there is a very large range of mechanical properties that can be achieved with composite materials. Even when considering one fibre type on its own, the composite properties can vary by a factor of 10 with the range of fibre contents and orientations that are commonly achieved. The comparisons that follow therefore show a range of mechanical properties for the composite materials. The lowest properties for each material are associated with simple manufacturing processes and material forms (e.g. spray lay-up glass fibre), and the higher properties are associated with higher technology manufacture (e.g. autoclave moulding of unidirectional glass fibre prepreg), such as would be found in the aerospace industry.

For the other materials shown, a range of strength and stiffness (modulus) figures is also given to indicate the spread of properties associated with different alloys, for example.

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Tensile Strength of Common Structural Materials

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Tensile Modulus (ie Stiffness) of Common Structural Materials

The above figures clearly show the range of properties that different composite materials can display. These properties can best be summed up as high strengths and stiffnesses combined with low densities. It is these properties that give rise to the characteristic high strength and stiffness to weight ratios that make composite structures ideal for so many applications. This is particularly true of applications which involve movement, such as cars, trains and aircraft, since lighter structures in such applications play a significant part in making these applications more efficient. The strength and stiffness to weight ratio of composite materials can best be illustrated by the following graphs that plot ‘specific’ properties. These are simply the result of dividing the mechanical properties of a material by its density (ie mass per volume). Generally, the properties at the higher end of the ranges illustrated in the previous graphs are produced from the highest density variant of the material. The spread of specific properties shown in the following graphs takes this into account.

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Densities of Common Structural Materials

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Specific Tensile Modulus Specific Tensile Modulus of Common Structural Materials

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Specific Tensile Strength Specific Tensile Strength of Common Structural Materials

Next week: the different resins

Stress versus strain – these concepts are very important for a good understanding of some of the above graphs. See Making Things, Part 6

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