The Development of Lightweight Composite Materials in the Medical Industry

Lightweight Composite Materials in the Medical Industry

The use of lightweight composite materials in medical devices is leading the charge in a billion dollar industry in pursuit of technological advances.

Experts estimate that the medical device market will reach $409.5 billion by 2023.

Lightweight composite materials have revolutionized the market. More advancements lead to more practical applications for medicine.

Let’s take a look at how composite materials came about. As we explore the history of composite materials, we can speculate where they’ll take us in the future.

Development of Composite Materials

When we fuse together two or more different materials, the result is a composite.
Let’s take a look at how human technology has advanced the capabilities of composites.

Early Composites

The creation of composites dates as far back as 1500 BCE. This is when Ancient Egyptians made a mixture of mud and straw to create strong, durable bricks. They continued developing this mixture, using it as reinforcement in pottery and boat-making.

In a similar manner, the Mongols invented the first composite bows around 1200 CE. They used a combination of bone, wood, and animal glue to create powerful and accurate bows. These bows are what helped the Genghis Khan army assert its military dominance.

Birth of Plastics

Much of composite technology remained rudimentary, until the rise of composite plastics.

Scientists began developing complex resins that significantly improved binding capabilities. Prior, only natural resins found in plants and animals were used as binding agents. In the early 1900s, scientists created plastics like:

  • Vinyl
  • Polystyrene
  • Phenolic
  • Polyester

These new, synthetic compounds outperformed the single, naturally-sourced resins greatly. While plastics work well as bondage adhesives, they offer little structural support. They still required extra support to give strength and structure. This reduced plastics’ viability as a lightweight material.

In 1935, scientist Owens Corning found the solution with his invention of fiberglass. Combining fiberglass with plastic revolutionized the market for lightweight composite materials. Not only was it super strong and supportive as its own, but it was also super light.

This advancement brought the dawn of the Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) industry.

Military Advancements

As grim as war is, wartime strategies have made significant advancements in technology.

World War II brought about a demand for advancements in composite materials. While many suffered, the FRP industry flourished.

Military aircraft, especially, brought about a need for newer, better composite materials. These structures carrying explosive weapons needed to stay airborne while under enemy fire. These advancements would later make way for the design and construction of spaceships.

Engineers would later discover the secondary benefits of composites. For example, engineers learned that fiberglass was transparent to the radio frequencies. They then adapted these materials to case electronic radar equipment.

Market Expansion

The end of the War did not bring about the demise of the FRP industry.
While demand for military applications was low, the momentum of composites innovators remained. Transportation became the primary focus of the industry. For example, the first commercial boat hull made of composites released in 1946.

One innovator rose above the rest: Brandt Goldsworthy, “grandfather of composites.” Goldsworthy furthered the industry with new manufacturing methods and products. For instance, he revolutionized the sport of surfing with the fiberglass surfboard.

Goldsworthy’s received great praise for a manufacturing process he developed, known as pultrusion. It is a method that reinforces products with fiberglass to be strong and durable. Today, products are still created using this method, like:

  • Ladder rails
  • Tool handles
  • Pipes
  • Arrow shafts
  • Armor
  • Train floors
  • Medical devices

Modern Composites

The 1970s brought another shift in the composites industry.

The methods for making plastic resins matured with the improvement of reinforcing fibers. It’s now that an aramid fiber known as Kevlar was created, perfect for body armor. Kevlar possesses high tensile strength and high density, yet remains lightweight. Likewise, carbon fiber development began, replacing steel components in my structures.

The composites industry is still continuing to develop. The focus is on improving renewable energy methods and upgrading medical devices.

Medical Uses for Lightweight Composite Materials

There are millions of composite products used to diagnose and treat injuries. The medical device market ranges from basic bedpans to complex prosthetic limbs.

Let’s look at some developing applications of composite materials in the medical field. While many applications are already available on the market, the following are still very much in research. Let’s hope they become available soon!

Carbon Nanotubes

Researchers are using carbon nanotube (CNT) polymer composites to incubate cytotoxic T-cells. These are white blood cells that attack and kill cancerous cells.

This new technique is under testing for use in adoptive immunotherapy. In this treatment, cells are removed from the patient, enhanced with CNTs in the lab, and then injected back into the patient. This improves the patient’s ability to fight infections and cancer.

Composite Trauma Plates

For decades, bone fracture surgery has relied on metal to repair compound fractures and severe breaks.

Composite plates have structural strength comparative to metal, yet they feature greater flexibility. They also have radiolucency, which means they are almost transparent on X-rays. The plates are also safer due to having low tissue adhesion and being biologically inert.

Composite Cartilage

Tissue engineering is gaining prominence as a method to replace damaged tissue. It is the practice of combining cells with engineered composites and biologically-active molecules. This creates functional tissue.

Some engineered tissues have made it to the commercial market, like those for wound care. Many others, like composite cartilage, remain in the intense research stages.

Concluding Composites

As you’ve read, lightweight composite materials have revolutionized many markets, including medicine.

SMI has a unique position within the Mayco Group of companies. This allows for incredible flexibility and versatility by working with many industries. This offers solutions for design and engineering to customized tooling for collaborative projects.

Contact us now with any questions or comments you still have about composites. SMI provides quality parts and services with superior customer service. Our focus is on how best to serve you.

Let us know how SMI can help you with medical composite materials.

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