Composites of zirconium carbide matrix material reinforced with carbon fibers can be fabricated relatively rapidly in a process that includes a melt infiltration step. Heretofore, these and other ceramic matrix composites have been made in a chemical vapor infiltration (CVI) process that takes months. The finished products of the CVI process are highly porous and cannot withstand temperatures above 3,000 °F (≈1,600 °C). In contrast, the melt-infiltration-based process takes only a few days, and the composite products are more nearly fully dense and have withstood temperatures as high as 4,350 °F (≈2,400 °C) in a highly oxidizing thrust chamber environment. Moreover, because the meltinfiltration- based process takes much less time, the finished products are expected to cost much less.
Fabrication begins with the preparation of a carbon fiber preform that, typically, is of the size and shape of a part to be fabricated. By use of low-temperature ultraviolet-enhanced chemical vapor deposition, the carbon fibers in the preform are coated with one or more interfacial material(s), which could include oxides. The interfacial material helps to protect the fibers against chemical attack during the remainder of the fabrication process and against oxidation during subsequent use; it also enables slippage between the fibers and the matrix material, thereby helping to deflect cracks and distribute loads. Once the fibers have been coated with the interfacial material, the fiber preform is further infiltrated with a controlled amount of additional carbon, which serves as a reactant for the formation of the carbide matrix material.
The next step is melt infiltration. The preform is exposed to molten zirconium, which wicks into the preform, drawn by capillary action. The molten metal fills most of the interstices of the preform and reacts with the added carbon to form the zirconium carbide matrix material. The zirconium does not react with the underlying fibers because they are protected by the interfacial material(s). The success of the melt-infiltration step depends on interface material selection and uniform coating of the fibers, infiltration with the correct amount of carbon, and careful control of temperature and rate of heating.
This work was done by Brian E. Williams and Robert E. Benander of Ultramet for Marshall Space Flight Center. MFS-31847