Aircraft Composite Structures - Part 2

Matrix Materials

Thermosetting Resins

Resin is a generic term used to designate the polymer. The resin, its chemical composition, and physical properties fundamentally affect the processing, fabrication, and ultimate properties of a composite material. Thermosetting resins are the most diverse and widely used of all man-made materials. They are easily poured or formed into any shape, are compatible with most other materials, and cure readily (by heat or catalyst) into an insoluble solid. Thermosetting resins are also excellent adhesives and bonding agents.

Polyester Resins

Polyester resins are relatively inexpensive, fast processing resins used generally for low cost applications. Low smoke producing polyester resins are used for interior parts of the aircraft. Fiber-reinforced polyesters can be processed by many methods. Common processing methods include matched metal molding, wet layup, press (vacuum bag) molding, injection molding, filament winding, pultrusion, and autoclaving.

Vinyl Ester Resin

The appearance, handling properties, and curing characteristics of vinyl ester resins are the same as those of conventional polyester resins. However, the corrosion resistance and mechanical properties of vinyl ester composites are much improved over standard polyester resin composites.

Phenolic Resin

Phenol-formaldehyde resins were first produced commercially in the early 1900s for use in the commercial market. Urea-formaldehyde and melamine-formaldehyde appeared in the 1920–1930s as a less expensive alternative for lower temperature use. Phenolic resins are used for interior components because of their low smoke and flammability characteristics.


Epoxies are polymerizable thermosetting resins and are available in a variety of viscosities from liquid to solid. There are many different types of epoxy, and the technician should use the maintenance manual to select the correct type for a specific repair. Epoxies are used widely in resins for prepreg materials and structural adhesives. The advantages of epoxies are high strength and modulus, low levels of volatiles, excellent adhesion, low shrinkage, good chemical resistance, and ease of processing. Their major disadvantages are brittleness and the reduction of properties in the presence of moisture. The processing or curing of epoxies is slower than polyester resins. Processing techniques include autoclave molding, filament winding, press molding, vacuum bag molding, resin transfer molding, and pultrusion. Curing temperatures vary from room temperature to approximately 350 °F (180 °C). The most common cure temperatures range between 250° and 350 °F (120–180 °C). [Figure 1]

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Figure 1. Two-part wet layup epoxy resin system with pump dispenser


Polyimide resins excel in high-temperature environments where their thermal resistance, oxidative stability, low coefficient of thermal expansion, and solvent resistance benefit the design. Their primary uses are circuit boards and hot engine and airframe structures. A polyimide may be either a thermoset resin or a thermoplastic. Polyimides require high cure temperatures, usually in excess of 550 °F (290 °C). Consequently, normal epoxy composite bagging materials are not usable, and steel tooling becomes a necessity. Polyimide bagging and release films, such as Kapton® are used. It is extremely important that Upilex® replace the lower cost nylon bagging and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) release films common to epoxy composite processing. Fiberglass fabrics must be used for bleeder and breather materials instead of polyester mat materials due to the low melting point of polyester.

Polybenzimidazoles (PBI)

Polybenzimidazole resin is extremely high temperature resistant and is used for high-temperature materials. These resins are available as adhesive and fiber.

Bismaleimides (BMI)

Bismaleimide resins have a higher temperature capability and higher toughness than epoxy resins, and they provide excellent performance at ambient and elevated temperatures. The processing of bismaleimide resins is similar to that for epoxy resins. BMIs are used for aero engines and high temperature components. BMIs are suitable for standard autoclave processing, injection molding, resin transfer molding, and sheet molded compound (SMC) among others.

Thermoplastic Resins

Thermoplastic materials can be softened repeatedly by an increase of temperature and hardened by a decrease in temperature. Processing speed is the primary advantage of thermoplastic materials. Chemical curing of the material does not take place during processing, and the material can be shaped by molding or extrusion when it is soft.

Semicrystalline Thermoplastics

Semicrystalline thermoplastics possess properties of inherent flame resistance, superior toughness, good mechanical properties at elevated temperatures and after impact, and low moisture absorption. They are used in secondary and primary aircraft structures. Combined with reinforcing fibers, they are available in injection molding compounds, compression-moldable random sheets, unidirectional tapes, prepregs fabricated from tow (towpreg), and woven prepregs. Fibers impregnated in semicrystalline thermoplastics include carbon, nickel-coated carbon, aramid, glass, quartz, and others.

Amorphous Thermoplastics

Amorphous thermoplastics are available in several physical forms, including films, filaments, and powders. Combined with reinforcing fibers, they are also available in injection molding compounds, compressive moldable random sheets, unidirectional tapes, woven prepregs, etc. The fibers used are primarily carbon, aramid, and glass. The specific advantages of amorphous thermoplastics depend upon the polymer. Typically, the resins are noted for their processing ease and speed, high temperature capability, good mechanical properties, excellent toughness and impact strength, and chemical stability. The stability results in unlimited shelf life, eliminating the cold storage requirements of thermoset prepregs.

Polyether Ether Ketone (PEEK)

Polyether ether ketone, better known as PEEK, is a high-temperature thermoplastic. This aromatic ketone material offers outstanding thermal and combustion characteristics and resistance to a wide range of solvents and proprietary fluids. PEEK can also be reinforced with glass and carbon.

Curing Stages of Resins

Thermosetting resins use a chemical reaction to cure. There are three curing stages, which are called A, B, and C.
  • A stage: The components of the resin (base material and hardener) have been mixed but the chemical reaction has not started. The resin is in the A stage during a wet layup procedure.
  • B stage: The components of the resin have been mixed and the chemical reaction has started. The material has thickened and is tacky. The resins of prepreg materials are in the B stage. To prevent further curing the resin is placed in a freezer at 0 °F. In the frozen state, the resin of the prepreg material stays in the B stage. The curing starts when the material is removed from the freezer and warmed again.
  • C stage: The resin is fully cured. Some resins cure at room temperature and others need an elevated temperature cure cycle to fully cure.

Pre-Impregnated Products (Prepregs)

Prepreg material consists of a combination of a matrix and fiber reinforcement. It is available in unidirectional form (one direction of reinforcement) and fabric form (several directions of reinforcement). All five of the major families of matrix resins can be used to impregnate various fiber forms. The resin is then no longer in a low-viscosity stage, but has been advanced to a B stage level of cure for better handling characteristics. The following products are available in prepreg form: unidirectional tapes, woven fabrics, continuous strand rovings, and chopped mat. Prepreg materials must be stored in a freezer at a temperature below 0 °F to retard the curing process. Prepreg materials are cured with an elevated temperature. Many prepreg materials used in aerospace are impregnated with an epoxy resin and they are cured at either 250 °F or 350 °F. Prepreg materials are cured with an autoclave, oven, or heat blanket. They are typically purchased and stored on a roll in a sealed plastic bag to avoid moisture contamination. [Figure 2]

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Figure 2. Tape and fabric prepreg materials

Dry Fiber Material

Dry fiber materials, such as carbon, glass, and Kevlar® are used for many aircraft repair procedures. The dry fabric is impregnated with a resin just before the repair work starts. This process is often called wet layup. The main advantage of using the wet layup process is that the fiber and resin can be stored for a long time at room temperature. The composite can be cured at room temperature or an elevated temperature cure can be used to speed up the curing process and increase the strength. The disadvantage is that the process is messy and reinforcement properties are less than prepreg material properties. [Figure 3]

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Figure 3. Dry fabric materials (top to bottom: aluminum lightning protection mess, Kevlar®, fiberglass, and carbon fiber)

Thixotropic Agents

Thixotropic agents are gel-like at rest but become fluid when agitated. These materials have high static shear strength and low dynamic shear strength at the same time to lose viscosity under stress.


Film Adhesives

Structural adhesives for aerospace applications are generally supplied as thin films supported on a release paper and stored under refrigerated conditions (–18 °C, or 0 °F). Film adhesives are available using high-temperature aromatic amine or catalytic curing agents with a wide range of flexibilizing and toughening agents. Rubber-toughened epoxy film adhesives are widely used in aircraft industry. The upper temperature limit of 121–177 °C (250–350 °F) is usually dictated by the degree of toughening required and by the overall choice of resins and curing agents. In general, toughening of a resin results in a lower usable service temperature. Film materials are frequently supported by fibers that serve to improve handling of the films prior to cure, control adhesive flow during bonding, and assist in bond line thickness control. Fibers can be incorporated as short-fiber mats with random orientation or as woven cloth. Commonly encountered fibers are polyesters, polyamides (nylon), and glass. Adhesives containing woven cloth may have slightly degraded environmental properties because of wicking of water by the fiber. Random mat scrim cloth is not as efficient for controlling film thickness as woven cloth because the unrestricted fibers move during bonding. Spun-bonded nonwoven scrims do not move and are, therefore, widely used. [Figures 4 and 5]

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Figure 4. The use of film adhesive mess, Kevlar®, fiberglass, and carbon fiber

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Figure 5. A roll of film adhesive

Paste Adhesives

Paste adhesives are used as an alternative to film adhesive. These are often used to secondary bond repair patches to damaged parts and also used in places where film adhesive is difficult to apply. Paste adhesives for structural bonding are made mostly from epoxy. One part and two part systems are available. The advantages of paste adhesives are that they can be stored at room temperature and have a long shelf life. The disadvantage is that the bondline thickness is hard to control, which affects the strength of the bond. A scrim cloth can be used to maintain adhesive in the bondline when bonding patches with paste adhesive. [Figure 6]

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Figure 6. Two-part paste adhesive

Foaming Adhesives

Most foaming adhesives are 0.025-inch to 0.10-inch thick sheets of B staged epoxy. Foam adhesives cure at 250 °F or 350 °F. During the cure cycle, the foaming adhesives expand. Foaming adhesives need to be stored in the freezer just like prepregs, and they have only a limited storage life. Foaming adhesives are used to splice pieces of honeycomb together in a sandwich construction and to bond repair plugs to the existing core during a prepreg repair. [Figure 7]

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Figure 7. The use of foaming adhesives

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