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Composite Materials in Ships, Pipelines, Liners and Aircraft

A future problem, which has not been adequately addressed, is that of fumes and smoke generated when the composite is burned. Composite material is a truly great human achievement in materials science, however, as we use this material in more and more places, we must be fully aware of the risks and potential consequences of their use. One danger is that many types of composites give off poisonous gaseous compounds such as cyanide gas. Not all composites do, but some do.

Composite material has been a godsend for aerospace as the material is light and very strong. Boeing has announced that it hopes to sell 200 of the 7E7 aircraft in calendar year 2005. Already in December 2004 Japan Airlines committed to order 50 Boeing 7E7 aircraft. Boeing also recently received a commitment from Continental Airlines to buy billions of dollars worth of aircraft between now and 2009 in order to lock in a special price. The 7E7 is slightly more than half composite and is the first passenger aircraft to contain this much composite material. Through economies of scale, Boeing is determining ways for robots to build the composite to reduce labor costs and eliminate human error, while standardizing perfectly flawless manufacturing with less than one-thousandth of an inch of variation. This will allow for a rivetless aircraft, saving thousands of pounds and an unmatched smooth skin for ultimate advantage in laminar airflows and parasite drag reduction. Such accuracy has never been achieved before.

The composite material has also been used in ducts because of its ability to go from hot to cold without the massive expansion and compression found with metal pipes. With the proper UV protective coatings it is the perfect material for such things. Hull boats and ships with composite parts can also be extremely advantageous and not have the corrosion problems that occur in salt water. Shipping companies with composite vessels will find that their maintenance costs are reduced for corrosion control and the lifetime of the vessels will be increased. Metal fatigue will no longer be a problem. Composite cars will be stronger and lighter, therefore safer, longer lasting, more durable, better performing and better gas mileage. Bridges, structures, towers, antennas and buildings are all good uses of composite materials and are often favored in the modern period. Skateboards, sports equipment, mars rovers, street signs and flagpoles can all benefit from the material properties of composites. Composite can also be manufactured on robotic assembly lines. Composite is available without the high cost of mining iron ore or precious metals.

Composite is a great material and makes a lot of sense really, but what about its other properties when it burns. What happens when a high performance 7E7 light runs off the end of a runway and catches fire? What happens when a pipeline breaks? There will certainly be less chance of sparks with such material, but what do you do when there are? For example, does the landing gear hit a fence and leak jet fuel into hot engines? Will the passengers be safe when the fire starts emitting poisonous gases? What about a composite pipeline that breaks from an attack My international terrorists? What about a car accident with another car or truck with a steel bumper that provides sparks or a battery cable that meets a ruptured fuel line? Cars in accidents don’t usually burn to the ground, but it does happen. Any attempt to rescue victims could result in death from cyanide gas, first responders would have to prepare before the rescue, adding to the critical time period to rescue the occupants. No one knows this better than the US Military Airfield firefighters who are trained for such things. Has the military learned the hard way that the new composite materials, for all their advantages, also have some serious and potentially lethal characteristics? Composite ships have incredible advantages in terms of lifespan and maintenance costs, but a fire on board would be difficult to fight and if out of control could be fatal for all on board.

We need to study how to use materials science to prevent the toxins produced by burning composite material. There must be a solution that can be mixed with the material during manufacture and a coating applied in the curing process along with special ceramic coatings after manufacture about 1-4 Mils thick for items that must consider weight as a primary objective and 10-12 Mils in thickness for such things as cars, railings, decks, ship interiors, etc. For things like railcars and pipelines where the weight is fairly insignificant, I recommend 10-20 mils of ceramic coating on all sides of the material, interior and exterior surfaces. By doing this, we can prevent unintended consequences when Mother Nature, Murphy, dumb luck or even the annoyances of international terrorists strike us. Funding should go to Universities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, Georgia, and Texas that currently have materials science degrees available so we can stay on the cutting edge and cover all bases. This research should be funded by DOE, DARPA and DOT, we need to accelerate this field now to keep up with the developments and needs we will see in the next five years. We need to look at the construction, the coatings, the useful life of the composites and all the possible variations of the composite material. I suggest doing this to take us to the next step in insurance.

“Strength and Security now and forever.”

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