How the application of composite materials in aerospace and defence is driving UK R&D

  • By Daniele Incerti
    • Nov 06, 2023
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Aircraft mechanic in the hangar

Aerospace engineering has built the world we live in today through trade and travel, which, in turn, has significantly contributed to the global economy. It has also guided us towards the future, from the initial Moon landing to the proposed first crewed mission to Mars, which could take place as soon as the 2030s.

Modern breakthroughs in aerospace engineering would not be possible without composite materials or “composites”. Composites are made of at least two parts: the reinforcement, which provides special mechanical properties such as stiffness or strength, and the matrix material, which holds everything together. They provide superior specific strength and the ability to tailor their properties according to particular use cases, making them indispensable in the production of everything from aircraft to electronics.

The exciting possibilities of composites have been embraced by the UK government, which sees composites as part of the “seven technology families of UK strength and opportunity” and has therefore included it within its innovation strategy for economic growth and future prosperity. 

The technology is now seen as strategic to unlocking innovation across all key industrial sectors, and as such, its value has grown, with the UK composites market holding a value of approximately $0.7 billion in 2021. With an expected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.3% from 2021 to 2027, it is projected to reach an estimated $1.3 billion by 2027.

Composites are ideal for sectors that require robust yet lightweight materials, which is why they’ve become so crucial for aerospace and defence, which are, respectively, the largest and second-largest consumers of composites. In light of this, our article explores how the application of composite materials in aerospace and defence industries is helping to drive research and development (R&D) as well as examining industry blockers and specific R&D focus areas within these sectors.

Market drivers for composite materials in aerospace and defence

The UK’s aerospace and defence industries, in particular, are witnessing a significant upturn, propelled by a variety of market factors. These include the UK’s focus on expanding its domestic defence industry, substantial government funding, and an increasing demand for lightweight materials. The implications of these drivers are far-reaching, leading to job creation, enhancing sustainability efforts, and technological advancements within these sectors. We explore each of these factors in more detail below.

Domestic defence expansion

The UK government’s commitment to growing a robust domestic defence industry is a key driver for R&D in composites. By nurturing homegrown capabilities and technologies, the country can reduce its reliance on foreign suppliers, enhance national security, and stimulate economic growth. This focus on domestic expansion encourages innovation and the development of new materials, with composites playing a crucial role.

Government funding

In 2022, the UK government announced a £95 million funding package for the development of super-materials of the future. This investment underscores the government’s recognition of the importance of advanced materials in driving industrial growth and competitiveness. Additionally, the government secured a separate private investment from Boeing and other aerospace and manufacturing partners of over £80 million, aimed at developing automated dry fibre and resin infusion advanced manufacturing methods in the hope of delivering high manufacturing rates and increased production efficiency. Such substantial financial support fuels the R&D of composites, fostering innovation and helping the UK stay at the forefront of aerospace and defence.

Demand for lightweight materials

There has been an escalating demand for lightweight materials in the aerospace and defence industry driven mainly by the need to improve fuel efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions. Composites, known for their high strength-to-weight ratio, are ideally suited to meet this demand. They help decrease the weight of aircraft and vehicles, leading to significant fuel savings and reduced environmental impact.

Job creation

Interest in composite materials also contributes to job creation and helps to create a more skilled workforce in the UK. As the industry sees more investment in aerospace and defence, more skilled personnel are needed to drive R&D, production, and application of these materials for these industries. In 2021, the composite supply chain comprised more than 400 companies and 30,000 people (primarily in aerospace and defence).

Sustainability

Composite materials are increasingly viewed as a sustainable alternative due to their durability, lightweight nature, potential for recyclability, and less energy-intensive production process. Their longevity minimises waste by reducing the frequency of replacements. Moreover, technological improvements have led to the creation of recyclable composites, which can be reused, thereby decreasing the demand for new raw materials and their environmental impact.

Industry blockers

Despite the promising growth, the industry faces several challenges, which we explore below.

Material supply constraints

One of the primary challenges is the limited material supply base in the UK, especially for essential components like glass fibres, carbon fibres and epoxy resins. The majority of these raw materials used in the industry are imported, making the sector heavily dependent on international markets. This dependency not only exposes the industry to fluctuations in global supply and demand but also increases lead times, potentially delaying R&D initiatives.

Rising raw material costs

The increasing cost of raw materials is another significant obstacle. As the prices of fibres and resins continue to rise, so does the cost of producing composite materials. This escalation in costs can hinder market growth as it may limit the ability to invest in R&D, potentially stifling innovation and the development of new composite materials or manufacturing processes.

Waste management issues

Waste management issues associated with composite materials further complicate matters. The disposal and recycling of composites pose environmental concerns. These challenges need to be addressed not only from an ecological perspective but also to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.

International competition

Competition from low-cost manufacturing countries is a significant factor. Countries with lower labour costs and growing technical expertise are increasingly competitive in the composites market. This competition puts additional pressure on UK companies to reduce costs, which might detract from their ability to invest in R&D.

Opportunities for composite R&D in aerospace and defence

Composite materials have many applications in aerospace and defence. They can be designed and manufactured into complex configurations and have higher specific strength properties than conventional metal alloys, making them ideal for aircraft construction.

In less than a generation, composites have gone from accounting for 10–15% of passenger jets to more than 50%. They are significantly lighter than conventional materials such as metals, highly versatile, and extremely resistant to weathering and fatigue. Their ability to withstand exceptionally high temperatures makes them ideal for aircraft construction and applications in spacecraft and re-entry vehicles.

Below, we look at specific areas where there is a focus on composite R&D within aerospace and defence

Manufacturing

New manufacturing technologies such as large-format additive manufacturing (LFAM) and 3D printing processes are increasingly adopted by aerospace Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). The focus of R&D in these areas is to enhance the variety of thermoplastic materials suitable for these processes, including biodegradable materials, composite filaments, and specialised polymers for functional parts.

Improving performance

R&D is also focused on improving performance through the development of super materials. For example, while Ceramic-Matrix Composites (CMCs) are already used in ultra-high-temperature applications such as internal engine components, a progressive increase in temperature capability and design limits represents an ongoing goal. As such, it is imperative to develop innovative environmental barrier coatings alongside improved fabrication and testing techniques.

Other R&D efforts to improve performance include developing anti-icing materials and coatings for efficient ice prevention and control on aircraft wings, investigating the application of bio-sourced and recycled materials into aircraft components, and creating lightweight composite air cargo pallets with enhanced stiffness and resistance to flame penetration.

Self-healing materials

One of the most exciting developments in the field is self-healing composites. Impact loads can cause the deterioration of composite materials, but their enhanced cellular mobility allows for self-healing capabilities. Examples include the use of co-electrospinning to create a hybrid multi-scale polycarbonate composite with self-healing core-shell nanofibres at the interfaces and adding microcapsules containing restorative agents to carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) composites to avoid delamination breakage.

Supporting aerospace and defence development

With such promising advancements in composite materials, the aerospace and defence industries are set to reach new heights in the coming years.

Leyton UK helps businesses get the most from their R&D Tax Credits, which can provide valuable benefits for innovators in pioneering industries. We’re uniquely placed to help because our consultants have industry experience, allowing them to easily grasp the details of composite-related projects to uncover areas where significant savings can be made.

With our help, businesses can receive financial relief on their R&D projects, freeing up money for more innovation and investment, leading to further breakthroughs and growth.Are you working on R&D projects in composite materials for the aerospace and defence industry? Speak to one of our consultants to find out how we can support your claim.

Author

Daniele Incerti

Senior Technical Consultant

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