The incorporation of FRP composite technology into the industrial world is less than a century old. The true age of plastics emerged just after 1900 with chemists and industrialists taking bold steps to have plastics (vinyl, polystyrene and plexiglass) mimic and outdo nature’s own materials. Spurred on by the needs of electronics, defense and eventually space technologies, researchers created materials with properties that seemed to defy known principles, like Kevlar stopping bullets. The first known FRP product was a boat hull manufactured in the mid 1930’s as part of a manufacturing experiment using a fiberglass fabric and polyester resin laid in a foam mold. From this somewhat inauspicious beginning, FRP composites applications have revolutionized entire industries, including aerospace, marine, electrical, corrosion-resistance and automotive/transportation.
Fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composite materials date back to the early 1940’s in the defense industry, particularly for use in aerospace and naval applications. The U.S. Air Force and Navy capitalized on FRP composites high strength-to-weight ratio capability and inherent resistance to weather and the corrosive effects of salt air and sea. By 1945, over seven million pounds of fiberglass were being shipped, primarily for military applications. Soon the benefits of FRP composites, especially its corrosion resistance capabilities, were communicated to the public sector. Fiberglass pipe, for instance, was first introduced in 1948 for what has become one of its widest areas of use within the corrosion market, the oil industry. FRP composites proved to be a worthy alternative to other traditional materials even in the high-pressure, large diameter situations of chemical processing. Besides superior corrosion resistance, FRP pipe offered both durability and strength, thus eliminating the need for interior linings, exterior coatings and/or cathodic protection. Since the early 1950’s, FRP composites have been (and still are) used extensively for equipment in the chemical processing, pulp and paper, power, waste treatment, metals refining and other manufacturing industries. Myriads of products and FRP installations help build a baseline of proven performance in the field in such products as chemical plant scrubbers, hoppers, hoods, ducts, fans, stacks, piping, pumps and pump bases, valve bodies and above-ground as well as underground tanks for chemicals or gasoline.
The decades after the 40’s brought new, and often, revolutionary applications for FRP composites. The same technology that produced the reinforced plastic hoops required for the Manhattan nuclear project in World War II, spawned the development of high performance composite materials for solid rocket motor cases and tanks in 60’s and 70’s. In fact, fiberglass wall tanks were used on the Skylab orbiting laboratory to provide oxygen for the astronauts. In 1953, the 1st production Chevrolet Corvette with fiberglass body panels rolled off the assembly line. Now, high-performance racecars are the proving ground for technology transfer to passenger vehicles. In the 1960’s, the British and U.S. Navies were simultaneously developing minesweeper ships as FRP composites are not only superior to other materials in a harsh marine environment, they are also non-magnetic in nature. It was also noticed at that time that one of the features of FRP is the ability of the materials to reduce the radar signature of the structure, such as a ship or an aircraft. High performance composites materials have been demonstrated in advanced technology aircraft such as the F-117 Stealth Fighter and B-2 Bomber. Currently, FRP composites are being used for space applications and are involved in several NASA test initiatives.
The marine market was the largest consumer of composite materials in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, the automotive market surpassed marine as the number one market; a position it retains. Composites have also impacted the electrical transmission market with products such as pole line hardware, cross-arms and insulators.
While the majority of the historical and durability data of FRP composite installations come from the aerospace, marine and corrosion resistance industries, FRP composites have been used as a construction material for several decades. FRP composite products were first demonstrated to reinforce concrete structures in the mid 1950’s. In the 1980’s, resurgence in interest arose when new developments were launched to apply FRP reinforcing bars in concrete that required special performance requirements such as non-magnetic properties or in areas that were subjected to severe chemical attack.
Composites have evolved since the 1950’s in architectural applications starting with semi-permanent structures and continuing with restoration of historic buildings and structural applications. Typical products developed were domes, shrouds, translucent sheet panels and exterior building panels. Today we see magnificent architectural composites such as the Blue Bear at the Denver Convention Center or the many architectural sculptures that could only be made from composites.
The military has long used composites in many applications ranging from the armoured HUMVEE, stealth ships, and stealth and fighter aircraft. The demanding performance of these applicaions makes it perfect to use composites.
During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, many applications of composite reinforcing products were demonstrated in Europe and Asia. In 1986, the world’s first highway bridge using composites reinforcing tendons was built in Germany. The first all composites bridge deck was demonstrated in China. The longest all composites pedestrian bridge was installed in 1992 in Aberfeldy, Scotland. In the U.S., the first FRP reinforced concrete (rebar) bridge deck was built in 1996 at McKinleyville, WV, followed by the first all-composite vehicular bridge deck in Russell, KS. Now, hundreds of bridges worldwide are utilizing composite technology for civil infrastructure including internal and external strengthening of reinforced concrete and masonry structures and bridge deck replacements.
Composites used in sporting goods is almost a given these days. Athletes wanting higher performance seek out the tools to make them better whether they are skis, snowboards, golf clubs, tennis rackets, hockey sticks, pole vault, jet skis, or fishing poles and more. Composites used in recreational activities continues to increase.
Composites were broadly introduced in automotive part applications starting in the 1970’s. Today, carbon fiber composites are not just being used on performance or luxury cars. The CAFÉ standard of 54.5 mph by 2025 have encouraged automotive OEMs to carefully consider and integrate as much lightweight materials into today’s vehicles for all platforms. By 2020, we should see most cars using composites in all parts from the body panels to the body in white. Truck manufacturers have extensively used composites in most of the truck cab and wind scoops.
FRP Composites have impacted and even revolutionized several major markets as demonstrated in the wind energy market. Composites are being used for the turbine blades, nacelles, and spinner. The lightweight, high strength composites allow for bigger and longer blades resulting in high producing electrical energy wind farms. Another example is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which is made from over 50% composites. Just 10 years ago, no one would dream of using composites on major aircraft structures. This is just the start. New markets, such as blast mitigation (as a part of Homeland Security) have been quickly commercialized. For all of FRP composites strengths, versatility is its greatest asset creating infinite possible solutions to improve quality, provide safety, and increase performance.