Article last updated on: Jan 29, 2019

What are composite materials?

Composite materials (also referred to as composition materials, or simply composites) are materials formed by combining two or more materials with different properties to produce an end material with unique characteristics. These materials do not blend or dissolve together but remain distinct within the final composite structure. Composite materials can be made to be stronger, lighter or more durable than traditional materials due to properties they gain from combining their different components.

Most composites are made up of two materials - the matrix (or binder) surrounds a cluster of fibers or fragments of a stronger material (reinforcement). A common example of this structure is fiberglass, which was developed in the 1940’s to be the first modern composite and is still in widespread use. In fiberglass, fine fibers of glass, which are woven into a cloth of sorts, act as the reinforcement in a plastic or resin matrix.

composite crossection image

While composite materials are not a new concept (for example, mud bricks, made from dried mud embedded with straw pieces, have been around for thousands of years), recent technologies have brought many new and exciting composites to existence. By careful selection of matrix and reinforcement (as well as the best manufacturing process to bring them together) it is possible to create significantly superior materials, with tailored properties for specific needs. Typical composite materials include composite building materials like cement and concrete, different metal composites, plastic composites and ceramic composites.

How are composite materials made?

The three main factors that help mold the end composite material are the matrix, reinforcement and manufacturing process. As matrix, many composites use resins, which are thermosetting or thermosoftening plastics (hence the name ‘reinforced plastics’ often given to them). These are polymers that hold the reinforcement together and help determine the physical properties of the end composite.

layers inside a composite image



Thermosetting plastics begin as liquid but then harden with heat. They do not return to liquid state and so they are durable, even in extreme exposure to chemicals and wear. Thermosoftening plastics are hard at low temperatures and but soften with heat. They are less commonly used but possess interesting advantages like long shelf life of raw material and capacity for recycling. There are other matrix materials such as ceramics, carbon and metals that are used for specific purposes.

Reinforcement materials grow more varied with time and technology, but the most commonly used ones are still glass fibers. Advanced composites tend to favor carbon fibers as reinforcement, which are much stronger than glass fibers, but are also more expensive. Carbon fiber composites are strong and light, and are used in aircraft structures and sports gear (golf clubs and various rackets). They are also increasingly used to replace metals that replace human bones. Some polymers make good reinforcement materials, and help make composites that are strong and light.

The manufacturing process usually involves a mould, in which the reinforcement is first placed and then the semi-liquid matrix is sprayed or poured in to form the object. Moulding processes are traditionally done by hand, though machine processing is becoming more common. One of the new methods is called ‘pultrusion’ and is ideal for making products that are straight and have a constant cross section, like different kinds of beams. Products that of thin or complex shape (like curved panels) are built up by applying sheets of woven fiber reinforcement, saturated with matrix material, over a mould. Advanced composites (like those which are used in aircraft) are usually made from a honeycomb of plastic held between two sheets of carbon-fiber reinforced composite material, which results in high strength, low weight and bending stiffness.

Where can composites be found?

Composite materials have many obvious advantages, as they can be made to be lightweight, strong, corrosion and heat resistant, flexible, transparent and more according to specific needs. Composites are already used in many industries, like boats, aerospace, sports equipment (golf shafts, tennis rackets, surfboards, hockey sticks and more), Automotive components, wind turbine blades, body armour, building materials, bridges, medical utilities and others. Composite materials’ merits and potential assures ample research in the field which is hoped to bring future developments and implementations in additional markets.

Modern aviation is a specific example of an industry with complex needs and requirements, which benefits greatly from composite materials’ advantages. This industry raises demands of light and strong materials, that are also durable to heat and corrosion. It is no surprise, then, that many aircraft have wing and tail sections, as well as propellers and rotor blades made of composites, along with much of the internal structure.

What is graphene?

Graphene is a two-dimensional matrix of carbon atoms, arranged in a honeycomb lattice. A single square-meter sheet of graphene would weigh just 0.0077 grams but could support up to four kilograms. That means it is thin and lightweight but also incredibly strong. It also has a large surface area, great heat and electricity conductivity and a variety of additional incredible traits. This is probably why scientists and researchers call it “a miracle material” and predict it will revolutionize just about every industry known to man.

Graphene and composite materials

As was stated before, graphene has a myriad of unprecedented attributes, any number of which could potentially be used to make extraordinary composites. The presence of graphene can enhance the conductivity and strength of bulk materials and help create composites with superior qualities. Graphene can also be added to metals, polymers and ceramics to create composites that are conductive and resistant to heat and pressure.

graphene and tin layered composite image

Graphene composites have many potential applications, with much research going on to create unique and innovative materials. The applications seem endless, as one graphene-polymer proves to be light, flexible and an excellent electrical conductor, while another dioxide-graphene composite was found to be of interesting photocatalytic efficiencies, with many other possible coupling of materials to someday make all kinds of composites. The potential of graphene composites includes medical implants, engineering materials for aerospace and renewables and much more.

Further reading

The latest graphene composite news:

Colloids Group funds research project for graphene nanocomposites GEIC

The Colloids Group is funding a joint collaborative Ph.D. research project with the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) at The University of Manchester. The project team will investigate the applicability of nanocomposites based on graphene and other two-dimensional (2D) materials to a broad range of thermoplastic materials, including polyolefins, polyamides and polyesters, and to understand how mechanical, thermal, electrical, rheological and gas-barrier properties (among others) are affected by the production process and by the materials used.

Phase 1 of this collaborative project was successfully completed within 12 months. Phase 2, which is about to start, is expected to be a three to four year research project. For this next phase, Colloids is funding and supporting a full time Ph.D. researcher who will be based at the University of Manchester with the Advanced Nanomaterials Group led by Dr. Mark A. Bissett and Professor Ian A. Kinloch.

Tetra Pak joing the Graphene Flagship to explore graphene's potential in the packaging industry

Tetra Pak has joined the Graphene Flagship project as the exclusive representative from the packaging industry to explore possible future applications of graphene in food and beverage manufacturing.

As part of the programme, packaging material innovations are being examined to see how graphene could offer coatings to reduce carbon footprint in the packaging supply chain.

GrapheCase creates prototype for graphene-based smart suitcase made from recycled plastic

UK-based start-up company, GraphCase, has developed a patent-pending technology to create a composite polymer using graphene, which is made from 100% recycled plastics. A prototype for a graphene-based smart suitcase made from this material has been developed in collaboration with The University of Manchester. The world first graphene suitcase is said to be 60% stronger, 20% lighter and has a lifetime warranty. The material used can also be recycled multiple times whilst maintaining its performance.

The overwhelming excess of plastic, detrimental to the environment, can be addressed by recycling, However, one of the barriers for using recycled plastic includes degradation and thermal aging of the plastic as well as mixing low-grade materials into the batch, which results in poor performance properties and lower reusability. The use of one 20" GraphCase cabin luggage could potentially reduce 6 kg CO2 emissions into the environment.

AGM and Infinite Composites develop graphene composite material for space exploration

Applied Graphene Materials logoApplied Graphene Materials (AGM) and pressure vessel manufacturer Infinite Composites Technologies have collaborated to develop a composite material for space exploration.

The partnership saw the use of AGM’s graphene technology in two resin systems for cryogenic pressure tanks. These vessels are currently being explored by Nasa for use in several spaceflight missions, as well as International Space Station Experiments (MISSE), Artemis and Lunar Gateway programmes.

Epoxy-graphene nanocomposites can be improved with nacre-inspired design

Researchers from Beihang University in China, Imperial College London in the UK, University of Wollongong in Australia and Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have addressed the issue of aggregation in epoxy-graphene nanocomposites, that damages the materials' performance.
Inspired by nacre, epoxy-graphene layered nanocomposites are tough and self-monitoring imageeft: Natural nacre. Right: Inverse nacre-like epoxy-graphene layered nanocomposites. (Image taken from Nanowerk)
The researchers report that they have successfully tackled this dispersion problem by constructing a continuous graphene-based scaffold. The results reportedly show that the team's novel strategy boosts the fracture toughness to about 3.6 times that of pure epoxy.