The State Of Composites

Materials Made By Combining Several Others, Are Becoming Big Business In Maine 

By L. Mercedes Wesel

David Patch imagines a town in Midcoast Maine known not for lobster, loons or moose, but as a living laboratory for modern construction materials.

In Patch’s vision, the bridge leading into town is made of a material that is stronger than wood, lighter than steel and lasts longer than either. The poles for the power lines are fiberglass.

And inside all of them are sensors testing their strength and durability. The data from those sensors are fed into a central database to advance the study and use of composites.

Patch, director of industry development at the Maine Science and Technology Foundation, dreams of making Maine a leader in developing and producing composite materials. That view is shared by others who see composites as one of the brightest lights in the Maine economy.

“There is no reason we couldn’t make Maine the capital for composites in North America,” said Martin Grimnes founder of Brunswick Technologies Inc., in Brunswick, a leading manufacturer of fiberglass.

Composites are new materials created by combining several materials, some for shape and some for strength. Sometimes, these materials are combined with natural products, such as wood. Maine has about 125 companies that either produce composites as a raw material, or use them to make other products, such as boats, canoes and automotive parts. That makes Maine a small player in the composites industry, especially compared with California and Florida, which are centers for aerospace manufacturing. The aerospace industry is especially suited to the use of composites because of their high performance and light weight.

But what Maine lacks in company size and quantity, it makes up for in quality and innovation, a familiar position for the state’s businesses.

“Manufacturing has to have incredibly high value added to be in Maine,” said Chris Evans, president and CEO of North End Composites in Rockland and chief operating officer of its parent company, Sabre Yachts Corp. Inc. in South Casco.

Brunswick Technologies “is the foremost in the world at what they do,” he said. “They have to be to justify the shipping costs to make products in Maine.”

Individual Maine companies, like Brunswick Technologies, already are industry leaders, some with an increasingly international reputation:

Brunswick Technologies in Brunswick makes fiberglass, carbon and Kevlar fabric used to manufacture boats, boxcars, buses, snowboards and well covers for North Sea oil rigs, as well as wood composites. In February, the company bought a plant in England to better position itself in the European market.

Brunswick Technologies produces all the fiberglass for both Sabre Yachts and North End Composites, as well as more than half the boat builders in North America.

Sabre Yachts Corp. in South Casco, parent company of North End Composites in Rockland, builds yachts, some of which have been popular with celebrities such as Billy Joel.

Aegis in Van Buren developed the first American composite bicycle frame built in a single piece.

Pepin Associates Inc., in Greenville, produces prosthetic limbs and patented thermoplastic compression beams installed between the bumper and firewall of Ford Escorts.

Fiber Materials Inc. in Biddeford develops and manufactures materials for space, defense, research and production uses.

Composites are growing in popularity because they are stronger, lighter and longer lasting than many other raw materials. And composites can be custom designed for a particular use. Fiberglass, for example, is made from a textile woven of hairlike glass fibers. The glass “cloth” is then treated with a resin, or thermoset, which chemically reacts and hardens the fabric into a molded shape. It also can be formed with thermoplastic, which is hardened with heat and pressure.

Engineers at Brunswick Technologies have designed their own knitting machines that can make thicker and wider fiberglass textiles than other companies, which lowers the costs and broadens its marketability. They can also alter the texture of the material to suit a specific user.

One concern is that many composite materials are not recyclable.

“We need to use less resin,” saidEvans, of Sabre Yachts and North End Composites. “Recyclability have very low recyclablity. You can’t take it apart. The only thing you can do is landfill it.”

Thermoplastics are recyclable but they are not as strong.

Researchers will need to address this issue if they want to be bigger players in the automotive industry. Environmentalists are pushing auto manufacturers to make more car parts recyclable, a concern Evans shares.

“It’s important to me to know the care I’m driving is recyclable,” Evans said.

Maine already is a national leader in one type of research: wood composites.

In June, the University of Maine at Orono won a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to construct a 23,000-square-foot Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center. The NSF’s John Scalzi said UMO was selected because “no one else is doing anything like this on this magnitude.”

“You have to have research and development to be a leader, and we are the R&D arm,” said Dr. Habib J.Dagher, thedirector of UMO’s wood composites center.

The center will be used to develop and test wood-based composites as a low-cost, high-strength alternative to the steel and concrete typically used in major infrastructure projects. The university already has designed and built 14 timber bridges and piers using this method. Fiber-optic sensors inserted in the structures are used to monitor their performance. Sensors like those are in place in demonstration projects across the United States and in other countries. It is that information that Patch wants to consolidate and analyze at his living laboratory in Maine.

The center, which could open as early as December, will be able to contain a 30-foot-high building and a 100-foot-long, 50-foot-wide bridge, and similuate the effects of an earthquake, hurricanes and other stresses.

In 1994, Grimnes, founder of Brunswick Technologies, created the Maine Composites Alliance to organize the industry in the state and promote it worldwide. Its fourth annual New EnglandComposite Materials conference, held in Portland last month, attracted 43 exhibitors and 370 attendees.

Maine’s boat building and textile heritage gives it an edge over many other states. The same skills – making fabric out of cotton and wool or boats out of wood – are easily transferred to making fabric out of fiberglass and boats out of composites.

To test that theory, the Maine Science and Technology Foundation hopes to include a laboratory similar to the university’s as the core of its “living laboratory.”

“We’re talking about a complete accelerated lifecycle testing facility,” said Patch, the foundation’s director of industry development.

The rest of the town would be used as the practical application to see how the laboratory tests hold up under real-world use.

Patch’s goal is to find a Midcoast community suitable to be a living laboratory, one with available land or buildings for a laboratory and impending infrastructure projects that could be completed using composites.

He would then go to Washington to seek federal funding in the 2000 budget. The estimated $50 million to $100 million would be used to establish the laboratory. It would also help fund demonstration projects to pay the difference between traditional materials and composites.

While composites generally cost more than traditional materials, they often outperform them and can actually be more economical over the long run. For example, a bridge made out of composites would likely require less maintenance and last much longer than a steel and concrete structure.

The kind of demonstration projects carried out by the laboratory could help to show the overall superiority of composite materials. The hope is that these projects would lead to more substitution of composites in structures and products that are now made out of traditional materials.

“The pieces are all there. There is support at all levels. It’s a matter of packaging it, determining the price and getting the money,” Patch said. “Not to take the opportunity to lead the nation would be crazy.”

Or as Evans observed, “Maine should be the Silicon Valley, the Route 128 of composites.”