Composite Tooling Goes Environmental

Photo Courtesy: www.sme.org?

Photo Courtesy: www.sme.org?

Environmental protection may not be the first thing you think of when you talk about composite tooling, but the two are deeply intertwined. Technological attempts to reduce our impact on the environment rely on good materials and precision tooling, making composites a large part of the solution to environmental problems. And now environmental research is repaying the favour, with knowledge developed at the polar ice caps feeding back into better composite design.

Composites for a Better Future

As the composite materials we make and the ways we use them become more sophisticated they increasingly feature in all sorts of technology aimed at helping the environment. From wind turbine blades to the latest generation of hybrid cars, composites are helping to build a less polluted world.
The auto industry’s response to corporate fuel economy regulations in the United States provides a great example of this. Car manufacturers are not renowned for their environmental credentials, American ones doubly so. But providing corporate fleets is a big part of the auto industry, and the government is using this to force the hand of manufacturers. Regulations call for a 99% improvement in fuel efficiency in corporate cars from 2011 and 2025. That’s a tall order for the industry, and composite materials will have to play a big part in their response.
One of the best ways for manufacturers to improve the efficiency of their cars is by reducing their weight. But they can’t just shrink the cars or remove features – customers expect a certain standard from their vehicles. Advances in the use of composites will allow manufacturers to build lighter bodies without giving up strength and space. The challenge they face is one of reducing production costs for composites, with
better tooling design being a large part of how they will achieve this.

A Better Future for Composites

At the same time, research designed to help us protect the environment is helping scientists to develop better composites.
Ken Golden, a professor of mathematics at the University of Utah, is using maths to better understand the polar ice caps and the way that global warming acts on them. Far from your normal image of a mathematician’s life, Golden has spent time drilling cores from the Arctic ice and then looking at the way they are structured.
The presence of salt transforms sea ice, making it a very different material from that seen on rivers, ponds or in a drink. It is porous, allowing sea water to move through it, and understanding the implications of this helps Golden to understand our changing environment.
But Golden’s research is not just useful for understanding the world we live in, it is useful for shaping it too. The structure of sea ice is similar to all sorts of other composite materials, and the mathematical formulae he has developed to model it are proving to have many other applications. From monitoring osteoporosis in human bones to designing better fighter jets, the implications of Golden’s maths are far reaching, and include potential developments in composites.

Environmentalism and Manufacturing Hand in Hand

Climate change sceptics sometimes dismiss environmental research as a waste of money that could be better invested in other areas. But the relationship between environmental research and composite materials shows that the sceptics are the ones wasting their breath. Improving our knowledge of materials is never a waste of time, and the things Professor Golden is learning from the arctic ice will help to make better materials. Materials which, in turn, can be used in the environmentally conscious technology of tomorrow.
The journey from the icecaps to a better hybrid car is one that we take via composites.
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