Lightness, the key to the future
There is virtually no alternative to lightweight constructions: carbon fibres, the black wonder fibres that are superior to steel and aluminium in almost all respects when it comes to cutting weight. And, in terms of stability and lightness, carbon-reinforced plastic is simply unbeatable.
The aerospace, automobile and wind-power industries have been aware of this and have been using carbon-reinforced plastic for many years. Without it, much of what we nowadays regard as given – from Formula 1 racing cars, via the Airbus A350 to the innumerable wind turbines – would not be possible. All have one thing in common: they are made to a large extent out of carbon-reinforced plastic.
Even the railway industry has seen the need for such innovative lightness. For example, Voith Engineering recently developed a fibre-composite seat for railway vehicles that meets the very high safety standards expected by German Rail (DB), is easy to install and offers a weight saving of 1.2 tonnes per train. Parallel to this, Evonik Industries aims to develop a completely new class of lightweight materials: hybrid systems. Why? To combine the advantages of thermoplastics, i.e., great speedy workability, with those of thermo-setting plastics, i.e., excellent mechanical properties. Research into future opportunities for lightweight textile constructions is also being conducted by scientists of the ARENA2036 Research Campus in Stuttgart. Their aim is, over the coming 22 years, to develop a versatile production facility together with a function-integrated fibre-composite lightweight construction for series automobile manufacturing. And then there is the Institute of Lightweight Engineering and Polymer Technology of the Technical University of Dresden that is, inter alia, researching into an efficient process-chain development for function-integrated composite structures with fibre-reinforced plastics.
Almost 150 years after its discovery and use as the filament in light bulbs, carbon began its ascendancy with the first commercial production of carbon fibres made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN) around 40 years ago. Today, PAN accounts for 85 % of the raw materials used to make carbon fibres. However, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and, because carbon fibres are very expensive, RWTH Aachen and STFI Chemnitz universities of technology are focusing on the important subject of recycling. Anyone who has seen the ‘Martians in whole-body protective suits’ working on this subject knows that it is anything but amusing …
Innovation ‘Made in Germany’
If anything, textile-reinforced concrete is a subject for aesthetes – a new word that reflects its common roots with steel-reinforced concrete, the omnipotent material in the building industry. Nevertheless, together with textile constructions, textile-reinforced concrete, i.e., concrete poured around glass-fibre or carbon-fibre composites, will dominate in the future. Of this the experts have little doubt. Only recently, Dresden-based architect Gerd Priebe presented his design for the historic ‘Torhaus’ building in Dresden with a new roof and a ‘blue lens’, alias a textile-reinforced concrete villa, at the 2014 Architecture Day. The architects of Fickenscher Architektur also bank on this highly promising material for their new solar-energy house. The kitchen worktop consists of 3D textile reinforcement. More information about textile-reinforced concrete can be found on the website of the ‘Texton’ network for textile-reinforced concrete at http://textil-beton.net/ and on Facebook.
Thanks to their lightness, textiles are playing an increasingly important role in architecture and building, e.g., in the form of textile-reinforced membranes for stadiums, as can be seen in the impressive football stadiums of the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil. The use of lighter, material-efficient building constructions, e.g., made of thermo-plastic polymer fibres, will continue to increase because the properties of textile sheaths are improving all the time. With lightness, textile-based materials are in line with today’s mega trends, such as energy efficiency, multi-functionality and sustainability and are, therefore, the most intelligent alternative for more and more applications.
Incidentally: because PAN, the precursor of carbon fibres, is based on mineral oil, a group of Swedish scientists is researching into the use of lignin as the raw material for the production of carbon fibres. Lignin is a renewable wood-based material and a by-product in a kraft pulp mill. That, however, is another story.
Upper image: Textile-reinforced membranes will play even more supporting roles in the future. Photo: KnippersHelbig
Author: Iris Schlomski
Iris Schlomski, a Dipl.-Ing. in clothing technology, has worked as a self-employed specialist journalist for companies, institutes and editorial departments in the textile and clothing sector since 1992. She has been editor-in-chief of various well-known textile specialist magazines since 2002 and she has been editor-in-chief of the bilingual magazine “textile network” since 2009.