Composite Structures – Fiber Forms and Types of Fiber

in Advanced Composite Materials

Fiber Forms

All product forms generally begin with spooled unidirectional raw fibers packaged as continuous strands. An individual fiber is called a filament. The word strand is also used to identify an individual glass fiber. Bundles of filaments are identified as tows, yarns, or rovings. Fiberglass yarns are twisted, while Kevlar® yarns are not. Tows and rovings do not have any twist. Most fibers are available as dry fiber that needs to be impregnated (impreg) with a resin before use or prepreg materials where the resin is already applied to the fiber.


A roving is a single grouping of filament or fiber ends, such as 20-end or 60-end glass rovings. All filaments are in the same direction and they are not twisted. Carbon rovings are usually identified as 3K, 6K, or 12K rovings, K meaning 1,000 filaments. Most applications for roving products utilize mandrels for filament winding and then resin cure to final configuration.

Unidirectional (Tape)

Unidirectional prepreg tapes have been the standard within the aerospace industry for many years, and the fiber is typically impregnated with thermosetting resins. The most common method of manufacture is to draw collimated raw (dry) strands into the impregnation machine where hot melted resins are combined with the strands using heat and pressure. Tape products have high strength in the fiber direction and virtually no strength across the fibers. The fibers are held in place by the resin. Tapes have a higher strength than woven fabrics. [Figure 7-4]

Figure 7-4. Tape and fabric products.

Figure 7-4. Tape and fabric products. [click image to enlarge]

Bidirectional (Fabric)

Most fabric constructions offer more flexibility for layup of complex shapes than straight unidirectional tapes offer. Fabrics offer the option for resin impregnation either by solution or the hot melt process. Generally, fabrics used for structural applications use like fibers or strands of the same weight or yield in both the warp (longitudinal) and fill (transverse) directions. For aerospace structures, tightly woven fabrics are usually the choice to save weight, minimizing resin void size, and maintaining fiber orientation during the fabrication process.

Woven structural fabrics are usually constructed with reinforcement tows, strands, or yarns interlocking upon themselves with over/under placement during the weaving process. The more common fabric styles are plain or satin weaves. The plain weave construction results from each fiber alternating over and then under each intersecting strand (tow, bundle, or yarn). With the common satin weaves, such as 5 harness or 8 harness, the fiber bundles traverse both in warp and fill directions changing over/under position less frequently.

These satin weaves have less crimp and are easier to distort than a plain weave. With plain weave fabrics and most 5 or 8 harness woven fabrics, the fiber strand count is equal in both warp and fill directions. Example: 3K plain weave often has an additional designation, such as 12 x 12, meaning there are twelve tows per inch in each direction. This count designation can be varied to increase or decrease fabric weight or to accommodate different fibers of varying weight. [Figure 7-5]

Figure 7-5. Typical fabric weave styles.

Figure 7-5. Typical fabric weave styles. [click image to enlarge]

Nonwoven (Knitted or Stitched)

Knitted or stitched fabrics can offer many of the mechanical advantages of unidirectional tapes. Fiber placement can be straight or unidirectional without the over/under turns of woven fabrics. The fibers are held in place by stitching with fine yarns or threads after preselected orientations of one or more layers of dry plies. These types of fabrics offer a wide range of multi-ply orientations. Although there may be some added weight penalties or loss of some ultimate reinforcement fiber properties, some gain of interlaminar shear and toughness properties may be realized. Some common stitching yarns are polyester, aramid, or thermoplastics. [Figure 7-6]

Figure 7-6. Nonwoven material (stitched).

Figure 7-6. Nonwoven material (stitched). [click image to enlarge]

Types of Fiber

Fiberglass is often used for secondary structure on aircraft, such as fairings, radomes, and wing tips. Fiberglass is also used for helicopter rotor blades. There are several types of fiberglass used in the aviation industry. Electrical glass, or E-glass, is identified as such for electrical applications. It has high resistance to current flow. E-glass is made from borosilicate glass. S-glass and S2-glass identify structural fiberglass that have a higher strength than E-glass. S-glass is produced from magnesia-alumina-silicate. Advantages of fiberglass are lower cost than other composite materials, chemical or galvanic corrosion resistance, and electrical properties (fiberglass does not conduct electricity). Fiberglass has a white color and is available as a dry fiber fabric or prepreg material.


Kevlar® is DuPont’s name for aramid fibers. Aramid fibers are light weight, strong, and tough. Two types of Aramid fiber are used in the aviation industry. Kevlar® 49 has a high stiffness and Kevlar® 29 has a low stiffness. An advantage of aramid fibers is their high resistance to impact damage, so they are often used in areas prone to impact damage. The main disadvantage of aramid fibers is their general weakness in compression and hygroscopy. Service reports have indicated that some parts made from Kevlar® absorb up to 8 percent of their weight in water. Therefore, parts made from aramid fibers need to be protected from the environment. Another disadvantage is that Kevlar® is difficult to drill and cut. The fibers fuzz easily and special scissors are needed to cut the material. Kevlar® is often used for military ballistic and body armor applications. It has a natural yellow color and is available as dry fabric and prepreg material. Bundles of aramid fibers are not sized by the number of fibers like carbon or fiberglass but by the weight.


One of the first distinctions to be made among fibers is the difference between carbon and graphite fibers, although the terms are frequently used interchangeably. Carbon and graphite fibers are based on graphene (hexagonal) layer networks present in carbon. If the graphene layers, or planes, are stacked with three dimensional order, the material is defined as graphite. Usually extended time and temperature processing is required to form this order, making graphite fibers more expensive. Bonding between planes is weak. Disorder frequently occurs such that only two-dimensional ordering within the layers is present. This material is defined as carbon.

Carbon fibers are very stiff and strong, 3 to 10 times stiffer than glass fibers. Carbon fiber is used for structural aircraft applications, such as floor beams, stabilizers, flight controls, and primary fuselage and wing structure. Advantages include its high strength and corrosion resistance. Disadvantages include lower conductivity than aluminum; therefore, a lightning protection mesh or coating is necessary for aircraft parts that are prone to lightning strikes. Another disadvantage of carbon fiber is its high cost. Carbon fiber is gray or black in color and is available as dry fabric and prepreg material. Carbon fibers have a high potential for causing galvanic corrosion when used with metallic fasteners and structures. [Figure 7-7]

Figure 7-7. Fiberglass (left), Kevlar® (middle), and carbon fiber material (right).

Figure 7-7. Fiberglass (left), Kevlar® (middle), and carbon fiber material (right).


Boron fibers are very stiff and have a high tensile and compressive strength. The fibers have a relatively large diameter and do not flex well; therefore, they are available only as a prepreg tape product. An epoxy matrix is often used with the boron fiber. Boron fibers are used to repair cracked aluminum aircraft skins, because the thermal expansion of boron is close to aluminum and there is no galvanic corrosion potential. The boron fiber is difficult to use if the parent material surface has a contoured shape. The boron fibers are very expensive and can be hazardous for personnel. Boron fibers are used primarily in military aviation applications.

Ceramic Fibers

Ceramic fibers are used for high-temperature applications, such as turbine blades in a gas turbine engine. The ceramic fibers can be used to temperatures up to 2,200 °F.

Lightning Protection Fibers

An aluminum airplane is quite conductive and is able to dissipate the high currents resulting from a lightning strike. Carbon fibers are 1,000 times more resistive than aluminum to current flow, and epoxy resin is 1,000,000 times more resistive (i.e., perpendicular to the skin). The surface of an external composite component often consists of a ply or layer of conductive material for lightning strike protection because composite materials are less conductive than aluminum. Many different types of conductive materials are used ranging from nickel-coated graphite cloth to metal meshes to aluminized fiberglass to conductive paints. The materials are available for wet layup and as prepreg.

Figure 7-8. Copper mesh lightning protection material.

Figure 7-8. Copper mesh lightning protection material.

In addition to a normal structural repair, the technician must also recreate the electrical conductivity designed into the part. These types of repair generally require a conductivity test to be performed with an ohmmeter to verify minimum electrical resistance across the structure. When repairing these types of structures, it is extremely important to use only the approved materials from authorized vendors, including such items as potting compounds, sealants, adhesives, and so forth. [Figures 7-8 and 7-9]

Figure 7-9. Aluminum mesh lightning protection material.

Figure 7-9. Aluminum mesh lightning protection material.