Future Forward: Will Composites Be the Dominant Material of the 21st Century?
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Tom Dobbins is president and CEO for the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA), the trade association for composites manufacturers in North America and their suppliers. They provide education, market intelligence, advocacy, and market growth and development services to its members.
The Future of Materials
As a general description, composites take two materials and put them together to create a better material. In this case, it is combining glass or carbon fibers in a polymer resin matrix. Composite products tend to be lighter and stronger than most of the alternatives available, particularly in metals and wood. Composites are used in applications ranging from aerospace to automotive to infrastructure to vertical construction as well as electrical generation and distribution.
Composites are created worldwide by manufacturers ranging from small entrepreneurs to major industries. According to Dobbins, they provide many benefits that depend on the application.
“For transportation and infrastructure, it makes products lighter and stronger and more resilient,” he notes. “In wind energy… it’s lightweight and strength; you couldn’t create wind energy the way we do today with any other material but a composite. In utility structures, it’s lightweight and resilient, and the fact that it is not shedding toxins into the groundwater or into the ground is a big advantage.”
Although the applications vary, Dobbins believes they share one important characteristic: making our world a better place.
“If you look at what composites do in virtually every application, they make our world a better place,” he says. “They reduce carbon emissions in transportation. They generate wind and solar power. They’re a foundation for clean energy.”
In infrastructure, composites can help shorten construction times and save money. For example, they can help build smaller and lighter-weight bridges, shortening the time it takes to re-deck a bridge from weeks to days. Dobbins also notes that many infrastructure problems are associated with rebar-reinforced concrete, which is porous with the steel prone to corrosion. Composites eliminate the degradation of the rebar, resulting in infrastructure that lasts longer and is more resilient.
ACMA is working to release Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data showing the cost-effectiveness of composites in transportation infrastructure, but Dobbins believes they will show that composites are similar in initial costs to non-composites yet provide dramatic savings in long-term costs.
One element of infrastructure projects is particularly troubling to Dobbins: utility poles. He believes traditional wood utility poles are a relic from the past—he calls them a 19th-century technology—and should be replaced immediately with composite versions that will last longer, particularly in areas prone to winds and storm damage.
“When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, it wiped out 60,000 [wooden] utility poles; we went back and put in exactly the same technology,” he notes. “We have a picture of the Grand Bahamas with a bunch of wooden utility poles that are broken, and two utility poles that are standing: composite utility poles. What’s even more disturbing to me as a taxpayer and a ratepayer is that the wooden utility poles are on their fourth generation from the time the composite utility poles were installed.”
Room for Growth
“Everybody’s using composites to one degree or another, and the possibilities for growth are huge,” says Dobbins. “Tens of thousands of bridges get built or replaced every year; a tiny fraction of those are made out of composites.”
Other growth areas likely will be in automotive, architecture and aerospace industries.
“The key is educating architects and engineers on the benefits of composites, giving them the tools to design with composites,” he states. “Then educating asset owners so they demand the advantages composites give them in terms of lifecycle costs of the assets they’re building. That will really drive the 21st century to be the composite century, in the same way that the 20th century was the steel century.”
To that end, ACMA has a very aggressive outreach program. It provided a technology day with Ford Motors at its research and development facility in Dearborn, Mich. It’s also participating in an aerospace event with GE Aviation, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Tesla. ACMA also will be hosting webinars and attending industry conferences throughout the year as well as reaching out to legislators in Washington, D.C.
“Congress recognizes the importance of composites and included provisions on innovative materials in the last three infrastructure bills. There will also likely be legislation introduced to generate standards for composites through the National Institute of Standards and Technology,” adds Dobbins.