Modern Composites and How We Got Here

Composite materials like glass and carbon fiber are so commonplace these days that your average consumer has at least heard of them. We are seeing composite materials show up in consumer electronics, cars, boats, clothing and accessories, and even architecture. They seem to be everywhere. That begs the question: how did we get here? What are the roots of modern composites?

A composite material is material consisting of two or more separate materials combined in order to take full advantage of each one’s properties within the finished product. A key characteristic of composites is that each material used to create it retains its own identity.

Take a carbon fiber tennis racket, for example. It is made with a combination of carbon fiber fabric and epoxy resin. When combined and cured, the resin forms the main body of the racket while the carbon fiber fabric provides strength and support. Both materials perform better when combined yet still retain their own identities.

A Short History of Composites

Composite materials are nothing new from a historical perspective. Archaeology records instances of composites being used to make weapons as early as the second century A.D. For example, the Mongols are credited with inventing the very first composite bow.

Modern composites, like so many other things we take for granted, trace their roots back to World War II. It was back then that engineers discovered glass fiber was a much better material for aircraft and boats than wood, steel, or aluminum. They discovered it was lighter, stronger, and undetectable by radio frequencies.

It wasn’t long before defense contractors began switching out wood and metal parts with fiberglass replacements. That led to ongoing research into new uses for fiberglass in the years following the war. Said research eventually led to the first fiberglass car body in the 1953 Chevy Corvette.

There are rumors that Chevrolet built the body out of glass fiber merely for expediency. What began as a way to get a concept car ready for showing ended up being something customers loved. It also ended up being the start of something big. From that very first fiberglass body came the understanding that composites had the potential to replace steel and aluminum in plenty of applications.

Composite Materials Today

Designers and engineers have been fiddling with composite materials ever since the 1950s. They have done some pretty impressive work, too. By experimenting with different fibers and resins, engineers have come up with a long list of composite materials used in a variety of industries.

The aerospace industry is one of the largest consumers of composites, especially carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is a mainstay of production for the largest airliners from Boeing and Airbus. It is used by the defense contractors that build our military aircraft.

Automotive and marine manufacturing rely increasingly on composites as well. According to Utah-based Rock West Composites, the automotive industry is especially attractive to composite developers thanks to carbon fiber’s potential to make all-electric cars a reality.

And of course, composites now play a role in manufacturing all sorts of consumer goods. Just run an internet search and you’ll find carbon fiber golf clubs, tennis rackets, wristwatches, laptop computers, and hand tools – all made from a material that is strong, lightweight, and corrosion proof.

History records the use of composite materials way back in the second century A.D. Who knows? They may go back even further. The point is this: we got from way back then to where we are today in composites through research, creativity, and testing. Those same things will propel us into the future.