The strength of the future

Composite materials, which can be tailored to specifications and strengths and ultimately replace even steel, have come of age in India.

Published: Monday 28 February 1994

A glass fibre and polymer-base TEN YEARS of sustained research on the properties of composite materials at Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is now bearing fruit. Composites consist of glass fibres, carbon fibres and jute fibres, bound together in a matrix of a polymer like polyester and nylon.

Smelling success round the corner, the IIT set up in early January this year a Centre for Polymer Science and Engineering, devoted to research in composite materials.

Says R K Mittal, head of IIT Delhi's department of applied mechanics, who developed a new composite for making bicycles, "The beauty of composite materials is that engineers can tailor them to their own specifications of strength, and electrical and thermal properties."

Tubes India Ltd, a bicycle manufacturer, has evinced an interest in a composite called short fibre-reinforced plastic (SFRT), developed by Mittal and his team. Mittal says that this material could reduce a bicycle's weight by at least 10 per cent. SFRT can be moulded, unlike the usual steel parts that have to be welded, and this would simplify the mass production of bicycle parts.

But composites are still too expensive for a mass replacement of traditional materials. Says Mishra, "The polymers used in SFRT can, for example, cost about Rs 80 per kg, a great deal more than steel." In time, composites will be used increasingly in consumer items like cookware, crash helmets and car bumpers.

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