Reaching new heights: EU-made carbon fibre for satellites
Remember when there were no satellites? Before your time, maybe, as the first was launched in 1957. Today, we would be lost without them - quite literally so, but satnavs are only one of many services these orbital outriders underpin. EU-funded research is helping to secure Europe's access to the carbon fibre materials needed to build them.
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The EUCARBON project set out in December 2011 with the aim of boosting Europes capacity to produce carbon fibre and pre-impregnated materials (prepregs) suitable for applications in space. This is a critical question for the European space industry, says project coordinator Nuno Rocha of the Institute of Science and Innovation in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (INEGI), in Porto. As part of this four-year project, the partners set up Europes first production line for this particular type of carbon fibre, Rocha reports. He expects the product to be available to customers in a near future.
The space industry is very, very interested in this, Rocha observes. The team also conducted work on the polymers from which this fibre is produced, and on the next step in its transformation into structural elements for satellites.
Usually, the end users dont use the carbon fibre directly, Rocha explains. They use an intermediate product known as prepreg, where the carbon fibre is combined with a resin. Layers of this sheet-like material are then assembled and left to cure, forming the final composite material.
The resulting carbon fibre-reinforced plastic is similar to that used in planes, but space applications require even sterner stuff, Rocha explains. It must, for example, be able to resist a wide temperature range, and it must be strong and light.
These sophisticated, expensive materials are not currently available from European suppliers, Rocha notes. And because they also have military applications, buying them in even from EU subsidiaries of companies incorporated abroad is not necessarily a straightforward process, he adds.
And yet, given the strategic importance of the space industry, and of satellites in particular, security of supply is an important consideration, Rocha notes.
This observation shaped the remit of the EUCARBON project, he remarks. Satellite technology underpins a vast array of applications on which we have come to rely, in areas as diverse as telecommunications, navigation and earth observation, and further innovation is just around the corner. These, Rocha feels, are not opportunities Europe can risk having to pass up.
The project thus created new capacity to manufacture this specialty grade of carbon fibres. It also generated leads for the production of the prepregs, a demanding process which is not currently handled by European suppliers, Rocha notes. Encouraging results for these prepregs have been achieved at lab scale, he adds, and the partners can make samples available to companies that would like to use them for their own R&D activities.
To test the suitability of their materials, EUCARBON produced two components, which were made in line with the specifications of actual satellite parts deployed in space. These demonstrators, he reports, passed all tests with the expected performance.
Carbon fibre suitable for space is a niche market, Rocha explains it is only used in applications where its specific advantages justify the expense. However, he notes, boosting the capacity to conduct research on this type of material will have knock-on effects. EUCARBON has significantly improved European technical capabilities for the development of such advanced materials.
One of the problems of the composites market is that the range of available products is very limited, Rocha remarks. Therefore, developing new applications is very difficult. But structural composites have great potential in other sectors, which have already begun to exploit it.
So having this research stimulus in Europe will produce benefits beyond the space industry, Rocha concludes, pointing to applications in aeronautics, in the automotive industry and in the energy sector.