Composite Structures – Matrix Materials

in Advanced Composite Materials

Matrix Materials
Thermosetting Resins

Resin is a generic term used to designate the polymer. The resin, its chemical composition, and physical properties fundamentally affect the processing, fabrication, and ultimate properties of a composite material. Thermosetting resins are the most diverse and widely used of all man-made materials. They are easily poured or formed into any shape, are compatible with most other materials, and cure readily (by heat or catalyst) into an insoluble solid. Thermosetting resins are also excellent adhesives and bonding agents.

Polyester Resins

Polyester resins are relatively inexpensive, fast processing resins used generally for low cost applications. Low smoke producing polyester resins are used for interior parts of the aircraft. Fiber-reinforced polyesters can be processed by many methods. Common processing methods include matched metal molding, wet layup, press (vacuum bag) molding, injection molding, filament winding, pultrusion, and autoclaving.

Vinyl Ester Resin

The appearance, handling properties, and curing characteristics of vinyl ester resins are the same as those of conventional polyester resins. However, the corrosion resistance and mechanical properties of vinyl ester composites are much improved over standard polyester resin composites.

Phenolic Resin

Phenol-formaldehyde resins were first produced commercially in the early 1900s for use in the commercial market. Ureaformaldehyde and melamine-formaldehyde appeared in the 1920–1930s as a less expensive alternative for lower temperature use. Phenolic resins are used for interior components because of their low smoke and flammability characteristics.


Epoxies are polymerizable thermosetting resins and are available in a variety of viscosities from liquid to solid. There are many different types of epoxy, and the technician should use the maintenance manual to select the correct type for a specific repair. Epoxies are used widely in resins for prepreg materials and structural adhesives. The advantages of epoxies are high strength and modulus, low levels of volatiles, excellent adhesion, low shrinkage, good chemical resistance, and ease of processing. Their major disadvantages are brittleness and the reduction of properties in the presence of moisture. The processing or curing of epoxies is slower than polyester resins. Processing techniques include autoclave molding, filament winding, press molding, vacuum bag molding, resin transfer molding, and pultrusion. Curing temperatures vary from room temperature to approximately 350 °F (180 °C). The most common cure temperatures range between 250° and 350 °F (120–180 °C). [Figure 7-10]

Figure 7-10. Two part wet layup epoxy resin system with pump dispenser.

Figure 7-10. Two part wet layup epoxy resin system with pump dispenser.


Polyimide resins excel in high-temperature environments where their thermal resistance, oxidative stability, low coefficient of thermal expansion, and solvent resistance benefit the design. Their primary uses are circuit boards and hot engine and airframe structures. A polyimide may be either a thermoset resin or a thermoplastic. Polyimides require high cure temperatures, usually in excess of 550 °F (290 °C). Consequently, normal epoxy composite bagging materials are not usable, and steel tooling becomes a necessity. Polyimide bagging and release films, such as Kapton® are used. It is extremely important that Upilex® replace the lower cost nylon bagging and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) release films common to epoxy composite processing. Fiberglass fabrics must be used for bleeder and breather materials instead of polyester mat materials due to the low melting point of polyester.

Polybenzimidazoles (PBI)

Polybenzimidazole resin is extremely high temperature resistant and is used for high temperature materials. These resins are available as adhesive and fiber.

Bismaleimides (BMI)

Bismaleimide resins have a higher temperature capability and higher toughness than epoxy resins, and they provide excellent performance at ambient and elevated temperatures. The processing of bismaleimide resins is similar to that for epoxy resins. BMIs are used for aero engines and high temperature components. BMIs are suitable for standard autoclave processing, injection molding, resin transfer molding, and sheet molded compound (SMC) among others.

Thermoplastic Resins

Thermoplastic materials can be softened repeatedly by an increase of temperature and hardened by a decrease in temperature. Processing speed is the primary advantage of thermoplastic materials. Chemical curing of the material does not take place during processing, and the material can be shaped by molding or extrusion when it is soft.

Semicrystalline Thermoplastics

Semicrystalline thermoplastics possess properties of inherent flame resistance, superior toughness, good mechanical properties at elevated temperatures and after impact, and low moisture absorption. They are used in secondary and primary aircraft structures. Combined with reinforcing fibers, they are available in injection molding compounds, compression-moldable random sheets, unidirectional tapes, prepregs fabricated from tow (towpreg), and woven prepregs. Fibers impregnated in semicrystalline thermoplastics include carbon, nickel-coated carbon, aramid, glass, quartz, and others.

Amorphous Thermoplastics

Amorphous thermoplastics are available in several physical forms, including films, filaments, and powders. Combined with reinforcing fibers, they are also available in injection molding compounds, compressive moldable random sheets, unidirectional tapes, woven prepregs, etc. The fibers used are primarily carbon, aramid, and glass. The specific advantages of amorphous thermoplastics depend upon the polymer. Typically, the resins are noted for their processing ease and speed, high temperature capability, good mechanical properties, excellent toughness and impact strength, and chemical stability. The stability results in unlimited shelf life, eliminating the cold storage requirements of thermoset prepregs.

Polyether Ether Ketone (PEEK)

Polyether ether ketone, better known as PEEK, is a hightemperature thermoplastic. This aromatic ketone material offers outstanding thermal and combustion characteristics and resistance to a wide range of solvents and proprietary fluids. PEEK can also be reinforced with glass and carbon.