Mar 21, 2018 | By Tess

A team from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Materials and Manufacturing Directorate is working alongside NASA’s Glenn Research Center and the University of Louisville to develop high-temperature 3D printing composite polymer materials.

(Image: Dr. Hilmar Koerner / Air Force Photo)

The collaborators recently marked an achievement in their development process: they successfully 3D printed reinforced polymer composite parts with temperature resistances greater than 300°C. The material tested was a high-temperature thermoset resin containing carbon fiber filaments, which provide extra strength and durability without signigicant added weight.

“This is an extremely impactful breakthrough in composite material additive manufacturing,” said Dr. Hilmar Koerner, a scientist on the Polymer Matrix Composite Materials and Processing Research Team which is developing the material. “These 3D printed parts can withstand temperatures greater than 300 degrees Celsius, making them potentially useful for turbine engine replacement parts or in hot areas around engine exhaust.”

Indeed, the high-temperature 3D printing materials could be of great use to the Air Force and provide the means to manufacturing cost-efficient, durable, and highly resistant components. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the materials for the Air Force, however, is their light weight.

As mentioned, carbon fiber-reinforced polymers have the potential to match the strength of some metals without the weight of metal materials. For obvious reasons, having lightweight alternatives to metal is very appealing to the Air Force: the composite materials could allow for the creation of lighter aircraft which in turn could open the doors for increased aircraft range, optimizing fuel consumption, and, ultimately, cutting back on costs.

According to the researchers, there were a number of challenges in engineering the polymer powder for laser sintering. Initially, they began testing high-temperature polymer composites reinforced with glass fibers and other more typical reinforcing materials. Though the composite polymers are suited for certain applications as they do have superior strength to unreinforced polymers, the AFRL team found that parts printed from these materials would “melt into puddles” once they were removed from the print-bed for testing.

When Dr. Koerner suggested adding carbon fiber filler to the polymer, the results were noticeably better. The presence of the carbon fibers in the polymer material enabled a “better energy transfer from the laser to the matrix.” In other words, the carbon fibers caused the printer’s laser to heat the material faster by “absorbing the laser energy and conducting heat much faster than with the polymer alone.”

Ultimately, this technique allowed the team to 3D print high-temperature polymer composite parts, including test coupons and brackets, which could be the “highest temperature capable” polymer composite parts ever made.

“High temperature materials are notoriously hard and expensive to process, even using conventional manufacturing techniques,” elaborated Dr. Jeffery Baur, a principal materials engineer at AFRL. “Since they typically wind up being used in military specific applications, there is not a large supplier base for these types of materials.

“This breakthrough will enable us to additively manufacture high temperature, composite parts in a cost-efficient manner. Moreover, high temperature polymer composite parts that are small and have complex features will be extremely beneficial and advantageous not only for the Air Force, but have the potential to be a game-changer throughout industry.”

The next step in the research will be to 3D print larger components using the high-temperature polymer composite and to further test and qualify parts made from the material.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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