Composite materials can be cured in ovens using various pressure application methods. [Figure 7-38] Typically, vacuum bagging is used to remove volatiles and trapped air and utilizes atmospheric pressure for consolidation. Another method of pressure application for oven cures is the use of shrink wrapping or shrink tape. The oven uses heated air circulated at high speed to cure the material system. Typical oven cure temperatures are 250 °F and 350 °F. Ovens have a temperature sensor to feed temperature data back to the oven controller. The oven temperature can differ from the actual part temperature depending upon the location of the oven sensor and the location of the part in the oven. The thermal mass of the part in the oven is generally greater than the surrounding oven and during rise to temperature, the part temperature can lag the oven temperature by a considerable amount. To deal with these differences, at least two thermocouples must be placed on the part and connected to a temperature-sensing device (separate chart recorder, hot bonder, etc.) located outside the oven. Some oven controllers can be controlled by thermocouples placed on the repair part.
An autoclave system allows a complex chemical reaction to occur inside a pressure vessel according to a specified time, temperature, and pressure profile in order to process a variety of materials. [Figure 7-39] The evolution of materials and processes has taken autoclave operating conditions from 120 °C (250 °F) and 275 kPa (40 psi) to well over 760 °C (1,400 °F) and 69,000 kPa (10,000 psi). Autoclaves that are operated at lower temperatures and pressures can be pressurized by air, but if higher temperatures and pressures are required for the cure cycle, a 50/50 mixture of air and nitrogen or 100 percent nitrogen should be used to reduce the change of an autoclave fire.The major elements of an autoclave system are a vessel to contain pressure, sources to heat the gas stream and circulate it uniformly within the vessel, a subsystem to apply vacuum to parts covered by a vacuum bag, a subsystem to control operating parameters, and a subsystem to load the molds into the autoclave. Modern autoclaves are computer controlled and the operator can write and monitor all types of cure cycle programs. The most accurate way to control the cure cycle is to control the autoclave controller with thermocouples that are placed on the actual part.
Most parts processed in autoclaves are covered with a vacuum bag that is used primarily for compaction of laminates and to provide a path for removal of volatiles. The bag allows the part to be subjected to differential pressure in the autoclave without being directly exposed to the autoclave atmosphere. The vacuum bag is also used to apply varying levels of vacuum to the part.
Heat Bonder and Heat Lamps
Typical on-aircraft heating methods include electrical resistance heat blankets, infrared heat lamps, and hot air devices. All heating devices must be controlled by some means so that the correct amount of heat can be applied. This is particularly important for repairs using prepreg material and adhesives, because controlled heating and cooling rates are usually prescribed.
A heat bonder is a portable device that automatically controls heating based on temperature feedback from the repair area. Heat bonders also have a vacuum pump that supplies and monitors the vacuum in the vacuum bag. The heat bonder controls the cure cycle with thermocouples that are placed near the repair. Some repairs require up to 10 thermocouples. Modern heat bonders can run many different types of cure programs and cure cycle data can be printed out or uploaded to a computer. [Figure 7-40]
A heat blanket is a flexible heater. It is made of two layers of silicon rubber with a metal resistance heater between the two layers of silicon. Heat blankets are a common method of applying heat for repairs on the aircraft. Heat blankets may be controlled manually; however, they are usually used in conjunction with a heat bonder. Heat is transferred from the blanket via conduction. Consequently, the heat blanket must conform to and be in 100 percent contact with the part, which is usually accomplished using vacuum bag pressure. [Figure 7-41]
Infrared heat lamps can also be used for elevated temperature curing of composites if a vacuum bag is not utilized. However, they are generally not effective for producing curing temperatures above 150 °F, or for areas larger than two square feet. It is also difficult to control the heat applied with a lamp, and lamps tend to generate high-surface temperatures quickly. If controlled by thermostats, heat lamps can be useful in applying curing heat to large or irregular surfaces. Heat bonders can be used to control heat lamps.
Hot Air System
Hot air systems can be used to cure composite repairs, and are mainly restricted to small repairs and for drying the repair area. A heat generator supplies hot air that is directed into an insulated enclosure set up around the repair area after vacuum bagging has been deployed. The hot air surrounds the repair for even temperature rise.