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:

Versarien launches graphene-enhanced protective face masks

Versarien LogoVersarien has announced the launch of its first graphene-enhanced protective face mask, which utilizes Polygrene, Versarien’s graphene-enhanced polymer.

The launch of the new protective face mask is said to coincide with the first two orders Versarien has received following recent prelaunch sales activity, which resulted in 100,000 masks being delivered to a leading British university and 20,000 ordered by a UK electrical and mechanical servicing and repairs business.

First Graphene announces successful trials with HDPE for oceanic farming

First Graphene logo imageIn May, First Graphene announced it is collaborating with Hexcyl to develop PureGRAPH-enhanced HDPE materials for use in Hexcyl’s range of oyster baskets and long-line farming systems. Now, First Graphene updated on successful trial results from the application of PureGRAPH graphene to these oyster baskets with the South Australian shellfish aquaculture manufacturer Hexcyl Systems.

Using FGR’s PureGRAPH products, the High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) reportedly showed improvements in strength, wear resistance and longevity.

First Graphene collaborates with the University of Warwick on graphene-enhanced thermoplastics

First Graphene logo imageFirst Graphene has announced a collaboration with the University of Warwick on a project to unlock the potential of graphene in thermoplastic systems.

First Graphene has secured an award under the Warwick Collaborative Post Graduate Research Scholarship Scheme, in conjunction with the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG). WMG has established a successful model for collaboration between academia and the private and public sectors and has very strong links with world-leading industrial partners such as Jaguar Land Rover, who have located their advanced research group at the WMG campus.

Brown researchers combine a ceramic material with graphene to create the toughest solid electrolyte built to date

A team of Brown University researchers has found a way to double the toughness of a ceramic material used to make solid-state lithium ion batteries. The new strategy could be useful in bringing solid-state batteries to the mass market.

Graphene (rGO) can help prevent the propagation of cracks in ceramic materials used for battery electrolytes image

“There’s huge interest in replacing the liquid electrolytes in current batteries with ceramic materials because they’re safer and can provide higher energy density,” said Christos Athanasiou, a postdoctoral researcher in Brown’s School of Engineering and lead author of the research. “So far, research on solid electrolytes has focused on optimizing their chemical properties. With this work, we’re focusing on the mechanical properties, in the hope of making them safer and more practical for widespread use.”

ZEN Graphene Solutions announces collaboration with UBC-O on Department of National Defense project

Zen Graphene Solutions logo imageZEN Graphene Solutions has announced it will be launching a new research collaboration with Prof. Mohammad Arjmand and his team at the University of British Columbia (UBC)‐Okanagan Campus, with a $200,000 Department of National Defence (DND) Innovation for Defense Excellence and Security (IDEaS) award.

ZEN will be providing in-kind contributions of Albany Pure materials and consultation with its technical team.The goal of this collaborative research project is to develop electrically conductive, molded and 3D printed graphene/polymer nanocomposites as more versatile replacements for metallic electromagnetic shields that are currently in use.