What is a composite?

When two materials are combined to make a material that is stronger than either alone, they make a composite. The materials can be natural, such as wood, or artificial, such as polyester. A composite usually combines a matrix material and a reinforcement material. In fibreglass, for example, the glass fibres provide the reinforcement to the matrix made of resin.

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Examples of common composites in everyday life

In the modern world, we are accustomed to composite materials and take them for granted. Our cars, floors, baths and clothes are all commonly made of composite materials.

Nickel alloys are strong at high temperatures, second only to tungsten and molybdenum. This makes nickel composites extremely useful in making turbine components.

Where are composites used?

Fibreglass and polyester resin is a composite commonly used to make bathtubs, shower stalls, boat hulls and car bumpers. The durability of the resin combined with the structure and durability of the fibreglass makes a strong, waterproof material.

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Flooring, decking and garden furniture can be made of sawdust and thermoplastic. This creates a composite material with the attractive appearance of wood but with a longer lifespan that doesn’t need treating and won’t rot. Concrete reinforced with steel rods holds its structure and is stronger than concrete alone.

What are the benefits?

Creating a composite material can provide the benefits of both materials. Composites can be designed to be stronger, more durable, or more efficient than the original materials; for example, nickel composites can be stronger than nickel alone.

Which industries depend on composites?

Many industries depend on composites – airlines, transport, home furnishing, fashion, technology, construction and more; in fact, it is hard to think of an area of modern life that composites don’t underpin. Our food comes packaged in plastic and cardboard composites, while our poly-cotton shirts and blouses keep us looking smart without needing as much ironing as cotton alone. We enjoy sturdy furniture made of wood and resin composites, then use our carbon fibre bicycles or our composite-laden cars to get to work or school. Our phones and tablets respond to our touch as a result of the indium tin oxide coating on the glass screen, which is another composite.

Engineering composites for specific purposes has driven technology and society forward and given us many of the developments we take for granted in our daily life.

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