History of Composites

The Evolution of Lightweight Composite Materials

Nordex Wind Turbine Factory
Sean Gallup/Getty Images News

When two or more different materials are combined, the result is a composite. The first uses of composites date back to the 1500 B.C. when early Egyptians and Mesopotamian settlers used a mixture of mud and straw to create strong and durable buildings. Straw continued to provide reinforcement to ancient composite products including pottery and boats.

Later, in 1200 AD, the Mongols invented the first composite bow.

Using a combination of wood, bone, and “animal glue,” bows were pressed and wrapped with birch bark. These bows were powerful and accurate. Composite Mongolian bows helped to ensure Genghis Khan's military dominance. 

Birth of the “Plastics Era”

The modern era of composites began when scientists developed plastics. Until then, natural resins derived from plants and animals were the only source of glues and binders. In the early 1900s, plastics such as vinyl, polystyrene, phenolic, and polyester were developed. These new synthetic materials outperformed single resins derived from nature.

However, plastics alone could not provide enough strength for some structural applications. Reinforcement was needed to provide additional strength and rigidity.

In 1935, Owens Corning introduced the first glass fiber, fiberglass. Fiberglass, when combined with a plastic polymer created an incredibly strong structure that is also lightweight.

This is the beginning of the Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) industry.

WWII – Driving Early Composites Innovation

Many of the greatest advancements in composites were the result of wartime needs. Just as the Mongols developed the composite bow, World War II brought the FRP industry from the laboratory into actual production.

Alternative materials were needed for lightweight applications in military aircraft. Engineers soon realized other benefits of composites beyond being lightweight and strong. It was discovered, for example, that fiberglass composites were transparent to radio frequencies, and the material was soon adapted for use in sheltering electronic radar equipment (Radomes).

Adapting Composites: “Space Age” to “Everyday”

By the end of the WWII, a small niche composites industry was in full swing. With lower demand for military products, the few composites innovators were now ambitiously trying to introduce composites into other markets. Boats were one obvious product that benefited. The first composite commercial boat hull was introduced in 1946.

At this time Brandt Goldsworthy often referred to as the “grandfather of composites,” developed many new manufacturing processes and products, including the first fiberglass surfboard, which revolutionized the sport.

Goldsworthy also invented a manufacturing process known as pultrusion, a process that allows dependably strong fiberglass reinforced products. Today, products manufactured from this process include ladder rails, tool handles, pipes, arrow shafts, armor, train floors and medical devices.

Continued Advancement in Composites

In the 1970s the composites industry began to mature. Better plastic resins and improved reinforcing fibers were developed. DuPont developed an aramid fiber known as Kevlar, which has become the product of choice in body armor due to its high tensile strength, high density, and light weight. Carbon fiber was also developed around this time; increasingly, it has replaced parts formerly made of steel.

The composites industry is still evolving, with much of the growth now focused around renewable energy. Wind turbine blades, especially, are constantly pushing the limits on size and require advanced composite materials. 

Looking Forward

Composite materials research continues. Areas of particular interest are nanomaterials -- materials with extremely small molecular structures -- and bio-based polymers.