New technology boosts electrical and thermal conductivity of composites

Researchers believe that the technology will have wide-reaching benefits in the aerospace industry.

A collaboration between University of Surrey, University of Bristol and aerospace company Bombardier has developed new technology that could enhance both the electrical and thermal conductivity of conventional composite materials. The technology involves growing carbon nanotubes on the surface of carbon fiber to improve the performance of composites.  

The research shows off the potential of a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic to be made multifunctional, while still maintaining its structural integrity. Novel functionality including sensors, energy harvesting lighting and communication antennae can now be integrated into the structure of the composite.

“In the future, carbon nanotube modified carbon fiber composites could lead to exciting possibilities such as energy harvesting and storage structures with self-healing capabilities. We are currently working on such prototypes and have many ideas including the incorporation of current aerospace/satellite technology in automotive design,” says Ravi Silva, director of the ATI and head of the Nanoelectronics Centre (NEC).

According to Thomas Pozegic, research associate in ACCIS, the aerospace industry still relies on metallic structures, in the form of a copper mesh, to provide lightning strike protection and prevent static charge accumulation on the upper surface of carbon fiber composites because of the poor electrical conductivity.

“This adds weight and makes fabrication with carbon fiber composites difficult. The material that we have developed utilizes high-quality carbon nanotubes grown at a high density to allow electrical transport throughout the composite material,” he says.

Ian Hamerton, reader in Polymers and Composite Materials in ACCIS, believes that the research will have wide-reaching benefits in the aerospace industry, from enhancing de-icing solutions to minimizing the formation of fuel vapors at cruising altitudes.