Article last updated on: Jan 29, 2019

What are composite materials?

Composite materials (also referred to as composition materials, or simply composites) are materials formed by combining two or more materials with different properties to produce an end material with unique characteristics. These materials do not blend or dissolve together but remain distinct within the final composite structure. Composite materials can be made to be stronger, lighter or more durable than traditional materials due to properties they gain from combining their different components.

Most composites are made up of two materials - the matrix (or binder) surrounds a cluster of fibers or fragments of a stronger material (reinforcement). A common example of this structure is fiberglass, which was developed in the 1940’s to be the first modern composite and is still in widespread use. In fiberglass, fine fibers of glass, which are woven into a cloth of sorts, act as the reinforcement in a plastic or resin matrix.

composite crossection image

While composite materials are not a new concept (for example, mud bricks, made from dried mud embedded with straw pieces, have been around for thousands of years), recent technologies have brought many new and exciting composites to existence. By careful selection of matrix and reinforcement (as well as the best manufacturing process to bring them together) it is possible to create significantly superior materials, with tailored properties for specific needs. Typical composite materials include composite building materials like cement and concrete, different metal composites, plastic composites and ceramic composites.

How are composite materials made?

The three main factors that help mold the end composite material are the matrix, reinforcement and manufacturing process. As matrix, many composites use resins, which are thermosetting or thermosoftening plastics (hence the name ‘reinforced plastics’ often given to them). These are polymers that hold the reinforcement together and help determine the physical properties of the end composite.

layers inside a composite image



Thermosetting plastics begin as liquid but then harden with heat. They do not return to liquid state and so they are durable, even in extreme exposure to chemicals and wear. Thermosoftening plastics are hard at low temperatures and but soften with heat. They are less commonly used but possess interesting advantages like long shelf life of raw material and capacity for recycling. There are other matrix materials such as ceramics, carbon and metals that are used for specific purposes.

Reinforcement materials grow more varied with time and technology, but the most commonly used ones are still glass fibers. Advanced composites tend to favor carbon fibers as reinforcement, which are much stronger than glass fibers, but are also more expensive. Carbon fiber composites are strong and light, and are used in aircraft structures and sports gear (golf clubs and various rackets). They are also increasingly used to replace metals that replace human bones. Some polymers make good reinforcement materials, and help make composites that are strong and light.

The manufacturing process usually involves a mould, in which the reinforcement is first placed and then the semi-liquid matrix is sprayed or poured in to form the object. Moulding processes are traditionally done by hand, though machine processing is becoming more common. One of the new methods is called ‘pultrusion’ and is ideal for making products that are straight and have a constant cross section, like different kinds of beams. Products that of thin or complex shape (like curved panels) are built up by applying sheets of woven fiber reinforcement, saturated with matrix material, over a mould. Advanced composites (like those which are used in aircraft) are usually made from a honeycomb of plastic held between two sheets of carbon-fiber reinforced composite material, which results in high strength, low weight and bending stiffness.

Where can composites be found?

Composite materials have many obvious advantages, as they can be made to be lightweight, strong, corrosion and heat resistant, flexible, transparent and more according to specific needs. Composites are already used in many industries, like boats, aerospace, sports equipment (golf shafts, tennis rackets, surfboards, hockey sticks and more), Automotive components, wind turbine blades, body armour, building materials, bridges, medical utilities and others. Composite materials’ merits and potential assures ample research in the field which is hoped to bring future developments and implementations in additional markets.

Modern aviation is a specific example of an industry with complex needs and requirements, which benefits greatly from composite materials’ advantages. This industry raises demands of light and strong materials, that are also durable to heat and corrosion. It is no surprise, then, that many aircraft have wing and tail sections, as well as propellers and rotor blades made of composites, along with much of the internal structure.

What is graphene?

Graphene is a two-dimensional matrix of carbon atoms, arranged in a honeycomb lattice. A single square-meter sheet of graphene would weigh just 0.0077 grams but could support up to four kilograms. That means it is thin and lightweight but also incredibly strong. It also has a large surface area, great heat and electricity conductivity and a variety of additional incredible traits. This is probably why scientists and researchers call it “a miracle material” and predict it will revolutionize just about every industry known to man.

Graphene and composite materials

As was stated before, graphene has a myriad of unprecedented attributes, any number of which could potentially be used to make extraordinary composites. The presence of graphene can enhance the conductivity and strength of bulk materials and help create composites with superior qualities. Graphene can also be added to metals, polymers and ceramics to create composites that are conductive and resistant to heat and pressure.

graphene and tin layered composite image

Graphene composites have many potential applications, with much research going on to create unique and innovative materials. The applications seem endless, as one graphene-polymer proves to be light, flexible and an excellent electrical conductor, while another dioxide-graphene composite was found to be of interesting photocatalytic efficiencies, with many other possible coupling of materials to someday make all kinds of composites. The potential of graphene composites includes medical implants, engineering materials for aerospace and renewables and much more.

Further reading

The latest graphene composite news:

Researchers produce graphene by mixing oxidized graphite with bacteria

Researchers at the U.S-based University of Rochester, along with colleagues at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, have designed a way to produce graphene materials using a novel technique: mixing oxidized graphite with bacteria. Their method is reportedly a more cost-efficient, time-saving, and environmentally friendly way of producing graphene materials versus those produced chemically, and could lead to the creation of innovative computer technologies and medical equipment.

Bacterially-made graphene is faster, cheaper and better imageFrom left to right:graphite (Gr), graphene oxide (GO), microbially‐reduced graphene oxide (mrGO), and chemically‐reduced graphene oxide (crGO)

"For real applications you need large amounts," says Anne S. Meyer, an associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester. "Producing these bulk amounts is challenging and typically results in graphene that is thicker and less pure. This is where our work came in". In order to produce larger quantities of graphene materials, Meyer and her colleagues started with a vial of graphite. They exfoliated the graphite-shedding the layers of material-to produce graphene oxide (GO), which they then mixed with the bacteria Shewanella. They let the beaker of bacteria and precursor materials sit overnight, during which time the bacteria reduced the GO to a graphene material.

Supercomputer models graphene-water interaction

Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) used the Comet supercomputer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), located at the University of California San Diego, to create detailed simulations of graphene-water interactions, to determine if graphene is a good candidate for delivering medicine to a specific part of the body.

Cross-sectional view of seven graphene flakes in a water droplet imageA simulation done using SDSC’s Comet supercomputer shows a cross-sectional view of seven graphene flakes in a water droplet, and that the multi-layered graphene eventually merges together. Credit: Solanky et al.

While graphene has been extensively studied for many years in water-based solutions, especially in the biomedical sciences field, researchers say they still need to better predict the surface traits of such two-dimensional materials when exposed to water or liquids containing water.

XG Sciences partners with Niagara Bottling to advance graphene PET innovations in food & beverage packaging

XG Sciences 2019 logo imageXG Sciences (XGS) recently announced that it has entered into an Intellectual Property License, Joint Development and Commercialization Agreement with Niagara Bottling, a market leader in beverage packaging innovation and one of the largest beverage companies in the U.S.

The agreement provides XG Sciences with an exclusive license to Niagara’s patents and proprietary know-how related to the use of graphene nanoplatelets in PET in certain bottle applications. Under the agreement, Niagara will assist XGS with field engineering support to install products into the manufacturing lines for new customers – greatly reducing the manufacturer’s time to market.

XG Sciences to work with Sinochem and Yuyao PGS on graphene-enhanced thermoplastic composites

XG Sciences logoXG Sciences recently announced that it has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Sinochem Plastics and Yuyao PGS New Material Technology (an advanced materials development company focusing on the combination of graphene nanoplatelets and thermoplastic composites) to participate in developing advanced composites in China, based on its xGnP graphene nanoplatelets.

The Agreement strengthens the on-going relationship among the parties through creation of the Graphene Applications Development Center (GADC), a joint venture company between Sinochem Plastics and Yuyao PGS New Material Technology in the Sino-Italy Ningbo Ecological Park in Yuyao City. The parties recently partnered to bring new graphene enhanced anti-corrosion coatings to industrial and marine applications.