Airplanes of the future will be lighter, safer and cheaper to maintain, replacing metallic aircraft.
Aircraft engineers are using advanced carbon materials to usher in a new frontier of flying.
These materials are slowly replacing aluminium alloy, traditionally used to construct everything from fighter jets to passenger planes.
Professor Chun Wang, director of RMIT's Sir Lawrence Wackett Aerospace Research Centre, says carbon fibre composite materials have many advantages over aluminium alloy.
"Aluminium alloy corrodes, and that's a big issue because it costs a lot to maintain and can lead to fatigue cracks in aircraft and more mechanical faults overall," he says.
Aluminium alloy has kept the airspace industry flying for many years and is still a reliable and effective construction material used by today's airlines.
Yet researchers have found carbon fibre reinforced composite materials are more resistant to corrosion.
For example, carbon fibre can withstand decades of exposure to seawater immersion without deteriorating.
These advanced materials are also lighter and stronger than aluminium alloy and therefore capable of carrying more passengers.
Although a plane made of advanced carbon materials has a much cheaper total lifecycle cost than a plane made from aluminium alloy, the initial construction costs of these modern materials is much higher.
This cost dilemma has split the airspace industry - Wang says 50 per cent of new planes are made with advanced carbon materials while the other half opt for traditional aluminium alloy.
Wang, who oversees four postdoctoral research fellows and 14 PhD and Master of Engineering students, researches the design, repair technologies and energy storage of advanced composite materials structures.
Through research collaboration with Boeing Australia, Wang aims to develop new repair concepts and tools for composite material systems.
Developing new repair methods for these modern aircraft requires massive changes to the way airlines maintain their fleets, he says.
"Airlines using planes made from advanced composite materials have to introduce new processes and new skill-sets in the inspection process," Wang says.
A member of the Australian Research Council's College of Experts, he is also researching the use of carbon in other transport models.
Working with Geelong-based company Carbon Revolution, Wang is investigating ways carbon fibre wheels can improve automotive efficiency and performance.
"These light-weight wheels are 30 per cent lighter than existing alloy wheels, which may not sound like a lot in terms of vehicles' overall weight reduction, but it reduces energy consumption," Wang says.
"Carbon fibre wheels are also much safer, particularly when they hit a kerb at high speed.
"Instead of that impact causing a sudden loss of air pressure, the carbon fibre wheel will leak slowly and give the driver more warning."
Dr Matthew Dingle, managing director of Carbon Revolution, says Wang's background in aerospace composites has come in handy during the design phase.
"Chun and his team are helping us speed up checking the quality of the parts we manufacture," he says.
"Typically when you make composite parts, it takes three to four times as long to check it.
"We're pushing boundaries on a lot of fronts and our long-term objective is to replace aluminium wheels."
Wang says the ultimate goals of his research include improving the damage tolerance of composites; reducing the cost of design, manufacturing and through-life support of composite structures; automated damage detection; and affordable repair techniques.
Story: Kate Jones
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.