Then & Now: A Brief History of Composites Materials

What do you think of when someone mentions the words “composites materials?”

Do cutting edge plastics cross your mind? Perhaps extra strength lightweight aerial and automobile materials?

If rocks and mud pop into your mind, you’re not too far off.

Or do you feel a little lost at the mention of “composites materials?”

Let’s start with what exactly composite materials are. In the simplest definition, a composite is the combination of 2 or more different materials. This can be a mix of concrete, sand, and water to create concrete.

Or, mud and straw to create brick.

The art of creating composite materials, or composite manufacturing, goes back far beyond today’s industry-leading composite manufacturers. Over 5000 years ago to be exact.

Here’s a brief history of how composites materials came today and how they’ve revolutionized today’s technology.

The Birth of Composites Materials

Over 5000 years ago, around the century 3500 BCE, we find the first uses of composites materials. The ancient Mesopotamians, one of the first civilizations found in present-day Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria, are the first people to produce a composites material.

The Mesopotamian’s early composites were made from pieces of wood glued together in different directions. This created an early form of plywood.

The 1500s BCE bring about the development of brick. Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians mixed mud and straw to produce a durable composite used to build houses, public structures, and early religious buildings. This early brick-like composite also reinforced pottery and boats.

Composites Materials in East Asia

Fast forward to 1500 CE. We’re in East Asia where Mongol warriors are developing bows that are stronger and faster than the weapons of their enemies.

By combining wood, bone, silk, and “animal glue,” the Mongol’s compressed their bows and wrapped them with birch bark and/or silk to create some of the strongest and most accurate bows of the time period.

If you’re wondering if these bows were used in Genghis Khan’s armies, the answer is yes. These powerful bows aided in his military rule.

The composite bows continued to be the most powerful weapon until the invention of gun powder in the 14th century.

Era of the Resins

The first resins were originated from plants and animals. For example, pine resin, a sticky syrup-like substance was used to seal bows and boats.

As the 1800s kick off, people start to experiment with composite resins. Canoe builders would layer wood pulp paper known as kraft paper with a glue-like material known as shellac. Despite the effort, this paper laminate did not last long when submerged in water.

Shortly thereafter, man-made, or synthetic, resins were invented between the 1870s and 1890s. These resins could transform from liquid to solid by cross-linking molecules through a process known as polymerization.

The evolution of resin and the use of polymerization continued into the early 1900s where the curing (hardening) properties of unsaturated synthetic resins lead to early plastics.

The Beginning of Plastics

Synthetic resins such as polystyrene, polyester, and vinyl are the first plastics invented. These plastics of the early 1900s outperformed natural resins but still required another ingredient to gain the strength necessary for structural applications.

In 1935, an incredible change occurs in the plastics world. Owens Corning, a composites and glass company, invented a glass fiber known today as fiberglass.

When Ray Greene, an employee of Owens Corning, combined fiberglass with a plastic polymer, it became a lightweight and incredibly strong material. This unique material became known as fiber-reinforced polymer or FRP.

The introduction of FRP would change the composites materials and the manufacturing world would be forever changed.

Composites Materials During WWII

World War II brought forth the need for composites materials that were lighter in weight, stronger, and weather resistant.

Prior to WWII, the first air crafts used thin layers of wood and plastic resin for the wings. As WWII began, air crafts utilized fiberglass to cut weight and prevent corrosion in all weather.

1948 marks the year that the corrosion-resistant properties of fiberglass were used in pipes for commercial use and later adopted by the oil industry.

Besides fiberglass’s light weight and strength, WWII brings us the discovery of fiberglass’s “invisibility” to radio frequencies. Fiberglass was quickly used to shelter electronic radar equipment during the war.

After the war, military demand for fiberglass and FRP materials declines. The late 1940’s mark the public and commercial use of fiberglass and FRP in manufacturing.

Mid-Century Fiberglass

As soon as fiberglass and FRP became a consumable product, the boating and automobile worlds became the next major consumers of fiberglass composites.

Boat industries adopted and introduced the first boat hulls reinforced with fiberglass composites materials in 1946.

A fiberglass surfboard was introduced shortly after the new boat hull, revolutionizing the sport of surfing.

In 1953 the first Chevrolet Corvette made with fiberglass body panels rolled out of production.

Kevlar, a composite derived from carbon fiber proved to be bullet and knife resistant improving safety in the military and police forces.

Composites in Infrastructure

The increasing strength of composites materials allowed for their use in public infrastructure.

During the early 1980’s you could find the first highway bridge and bridge decks made entirely out of composites in Asia and Europe. All-composites pedestrian bridges and FRP reinforced concrete bridges could be found all over the world by the 1990s.

Strength and durability are major properties of composites materials that continue to grow into the materials we use today.

Composites Materials Today

Today, composites materials are used in anything from technology used by the department of defense to medical supplies and prosthetics.

Our industry-leading composite technologies are at the forefront of today’s automotive and aerospace fields. The department of defense utilizes our innovative composites materials in firearms, vehicles, and aircraft.

Everyday applications of today’s composites materials can be seen in the lightweight technology we use in the medical field and sports safety.

Sustainability

As technology in composites manufacturing grows, so does our attention to sustainability and composites impact on the environment.

We take pride in the longevity of our composites materials. The corrosive-resistant properties of composites materials allow them to last significantly longer than iron or wood. This longevity cuts maintenance costs and additional manufacturing in the future.

Lightweight composites are used by local and national parks looking to improve foot and automobile paths without the destruction of natural environments and intrusion of heavyweight materials and vehicles.

Looking ahead, research in composites materials sustainability and recyclability will continue to grow as technology gears us towards a more sustainable future.

Now What?

Are you looking to add innovative composites materials to your company products? Or are you a skilled engineer looking to join the world’s leading industry in composites manufacturing?

Drop us a line. We would love the opportunity to learn about you and share what we have to offer.

We have the experience and diverse expertise to meet your needs!

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