Composite materials are known for their high strength to weight ratio. It’s these properties that also make them so valuable in the aerospace industry; the lighter your vehicle, the less fuel it needs. Carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic composites are already widely used in aeroplanes for this reason. It stands to reason that this would also be a valuable material for spacecraft, however, it has a significant issue: carbon fibres break down when exposed to extreme heats like those experienced when travelling through the atmosphere.
A research team lead by Prof. Luke Henderson, that spans several Universities, have uncovered a solution. They found that by growing aromatic polymers on the surface of the carbon fibres they could protect them from breaking down when exposed to heat. The team recorded almost no reduction in tensile strength when heated up to 600 °C.
Elemental analysis of the carbon fibres at our Flinders University facility was used to examine the impact of heating on the chemical make up of the polymer and fibres. Scanning electron microscopy at our linked laboratory at Deakin University was used look at damage to the surface of coated and uncoated carbon fibres before and after exposure to heat.
This technique makes carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic a viable ultra-strong and ultra-light material for space-craft and satellites.
Y. Athulya Wickramasingha et al., Composites Part A: Applied Science and Manufacturing 2022 DOI: 10.1016/j.compositesa.2021.106740