Reinforcing critical areas in carbon polymer matrix composites (PMCs), also known as fiber reinforced composites (FRCs), is advantageous for structural durability. Since carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have extremely high tensile strength, they can be used as a functional additive to enhance the mechanical properties of FRCs. However, CNTs are not readily dispersible in the polymer matrix, which leads to lower than theoretically predicted improvement in mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties of CNT composites. The inability to align CNTs in a polymer matrix is also a known issue. The feasibility of incorporating aligned CNTs into an FRC was demonstrated using a novel, yet commercially viable nanofiber approach, termed NRMs (nanofiberreinforcing mats). The NRM concept of reinforcement allows for a convenient and safe means of incorporating CNTs into FRC structural components specifically where they are needed during the fabrication process.
NRMs, fabricated through a novel and scalable process, were incorporated into FRC test panels using layup and vacuum bagging techniques, where alternating layers of the NRM and carbon prepreg were used to form the reinforced FRC structure. Control FRC test panel coupons were also fabricated in the same manner, but comprised of only carbon prepreg. The FRC coupons were machined to size and tested for flexural, tensile, and compression properties. This effort demonstrated that FRC structures can be fabricated using the NRM concept, with an increased average load at break during flexural testing versus that of the control.
The NASA applications for the developed technologies are for lightweight structures for in-space and launch vehicles. In addition, the developed technologies would find use in NASA aerospace applications such as rockets, aircraft, aircraft/spacecraft propulsion systems, and supporting facilities. The reinforcing aspect of the technology will allow for more efficient joining of fiber composite parts, thus offering additional weight savings. More robust structures capable of withstanding micrometeoroid and space debris impacts will be possible with the enhanced mechanical properties imparted by the aligned CNTs incorporated into the fiber composite structure, as well as the potential for improved electrical and thermal properties.
The materials fabrication approach developed in the present effort is a platform for customer applications where additional reinforcement is required or would be beneficial, especially in FRC structures and component parts. Depending upon the specific customer application, the NRM could be tailored to the specific matrix resin and desired property enhancement.