Advantages and Disadvantages of Composite Materials on Airplanes

Carbon Fiber Material
Carbon Fiber Material. Getty/Steve Allen

Which Composite Materials Are Used on Airplanes? 

Common composite materials used on airplanes include fiberglass, carbon fiber, and fiber-reinforced matrix systems, or any combination of any of these.

According to the FAA, the composite material has been around since World War II. Over the years, composite material has become more popular, and it's now used in many different airplane types, as well as gliders.

About 35 percent of the nation's aircraft structures were made of composite material in 2005. Today, aircraft structures are commonly made up of 50 to 70 percent composite material.

Boeing rolled out its new 787 Dreamliner in 2012, boasting that it was 50 percent composite material. And in 2013, the A350-XWB, which is also made of at least 50 percent composite materials, took flight. New aircraft rolling off the line today almost all incorporate some kind of composite material into their designs.

Composites continue to be used frequently in aviation due to numerous advantages. Some say that these materials pose a safety risk to aviation, though, citing a few drawbacks.

Advantages

Most of the time, the use of composite materials on an aircraft structure reduces weight. Fiber-reinforced matrix systems are stronger than traditional aluminum found in most aircraft, and they provide a smooth surface and increase fuel efficiency.

Composite materials don't corrode as easily at other types of structures. They don't crack from metal fatigue and they hold up well in structural flexing environments. Composite designs also last longer than aluminum, which means fewer maintenance and repair costs.

Disadvantages

Composite materials don’t break easily, but that makes it hard to tell if the interior structure has been damaged at all.

In contrast, aluminum bends and dents easily, making it easy to detect structural damage; the same damage is much harder to detect with composite structures. Repairs can also be more difficult when a composite surface is damaged.

The resin used in composite material weakens at temperatures as low as 150 degrees, making it important for these aircraft to avoid fires. Fires involved with composite materials can release toxic fumes and micro-particles into the air. Temperatures above 300 degrees can cause structural failure.

Finally, composite materials can be expensive, but the high initial costs are typically offset by long-term cost savings.