Curing Composite Materials Using Lower-Energy Electron Beams

Less shielding is needed at lower beam energies.

In an improved method of fabricating composite-material structures by laying up prepreg tapes (tapes of fiber reinforcement impregnated by uncured matrix materials) and then curing them, one cures the layups by use of beams of electrons having kinetic energies in the range of 200 to 300 keV. In contrast, in a prior method, one used electron beams characterized by kinetic energies up to 20 MeV. The improved method was first suggested by an Italian group in 1993, but had not been demonstrated until recently.

With respect to both the prior method and the present improved method, the impetus for the use of electron-beam curing is a desire to avoid the high costs of autoclaves large enough to effect thermal curing of large composite-material structures. Unfortunately, in the prior method, the advantages of electron-beam curing are offset by the need for special walls and ceilings on curing chambersto shield personnel from x rays generated by impacts of energetic electrons. These shields must be thick [typically 2 to 3 ft (about 0.6 to 0.9 m) if made of concrete] and are therefore expensive. They also make it difficult to bring large structures into and out of the curing chambers.

Currently, all major companies that fabricate composite-material spacecraft and aircraft structures form their layups by use of automated tape placement (ATP) machines. In the present improved method, an electron-beam gun is attached to an ATP head and used to irradiate the tape as it is pressed onto the workpiece. The electron kinetic energy between 200 and 300 keV is sufficient for penetration of the ply being laid plus one or two of the plies underneath it. Provided that the electron-beam gun is properly positioned, it is possible to administer the required electron dose and, at the same time, to protect personnel with less shielding than is needed in the prior method. Adequate shielding can be provided by concrete walls 6 ft (≈1.8 m) high and 16 in. (≈41 cm) thick, without a ceiling.

The success of the present method depends on the use of a cationic epoxy as the matrix material in the prepreg tape, heating the prepreg tape to a temperature of 50 °C immediately prior to layup, and exposing the workpiece to an electron- beam dose of ≈2 Mrad. Experiments have shown that structures fabricated by the present method have the same mechanical properties as those of nominally identical structures fabricated by the prior method with electron beams of 3 to 4 MeV.

This work was done by Catherine A. Byrne and Alexander Bykanov of Science Research Laboratory, Inc. for Marshall Space Flight Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Materials category. MFS-31837

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