The integration of high-performance materials such as advanced composites, superalloys and composite coatings, in conjunction with computer aided manufacturing methods and design optimization techniques, is a growing trend in a variety of applications throughout the aerospace industry. Technological innovations in materials science have transformed aircraft design and engineering, making each new generation of aircraft lighter and more efficient, and enabling the development of new aircraft systems. Increasingly, aircraft components from cabin interiors to airframes and engines are being made from advanced materials, replacing conventional metal components, because of their superior mechanical and physical properties, which include high strength and elasticity, low weight, and increased resistance to temperature and wear from corrosion and fatigue. These engineered materials have become critical in the lightweighting of aircraft and the industry’s efforts to boost fuel economy and lower emissions, while having the added benefit of potentially reducing maintenance and repair costs.
Advanced composites are essentially ceramic, metal, polymer or carbon-based materials, called matrices, that are reinforced using high-strength fibers, typically made from glass, carbon or graphene. Additives and coatings such as accelerators, pigments, fire retardants and gel coats can enhance the processing or performance attributes of these materials. The most common advanced composite materials in aerospace applications are polymer matrices and particularly thermoplastics. Ceramic and metal matrices are typically used for high-temperature environments, such as engines, while carbon matrices are used in the most extreme high-temperature applications, such as rocket nozzles.
An emerging area in the development of advanced materials, considered the next frontier in high-performance materials, is the use of nanotechnology in formulating composites and coatings. Nanomaterials or nanocomposites use atomic or molecular size particles in composite matrices to improve performance and even provide multifunctional capability. In aircraft, adaptive or smart composite structures have the potential to autonomously change their properties or perform functions such as store energy, sense and heal damage and degradation, or morph into new shapes based on flight conditions. Anti-corrosion nanocoatings can release protective agents in reaction to oxidation or various environmental stimuli. In stealth applications, nanotechnology is facilitating more effective radar absorbing materials and light bending camouflage materials, called optical cloaking technology.