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Structural Thermoplastics & Smart Materials

Developing the next generation of environmentally sustainable structural thermoplastic
composites that save energy, reduce waste, and allow for making parts faster, cheaper, and more reliably.

Thermoplastic Composites and Thermoset Composites: What’s the Difference?

Thermoplastic Composites
Thermoplastics are recyclable and can be melted down and remade into a new product. Upon heating, plastic polymer thermoplastics soften to be shaped and hardened when cooled. With fiber reinforcement, thermoplastics have the same strength properties as steel, but are 1/4 of the weight, making it a cost-saving and sustainable solution. Increasing the market prevalence, sustainability and product consistency of thermoplastics is a focus of ASCC researchers. Using 3D printed thermoplastic molds, we form long-fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites created from a tape layup process.

Thermoset Composites
Unlike thermoplastics, thermosets cannot be melted down and reused. Traditional thermoset manufacturing techniques use resins like polyester, silicone, melamine, polyurethane, epoxy, urea-formaldehyde; and they contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The ASCC has committed to R&D work toward substituting these materials with 100% bio-based thermoplastics that are recyclable, cost-effective, and sustainable. 

Alfond Advanced Manufacturing Lab for Structural Thermoplastics

The mission of this lab is to increase the market prevalence of structural thermoplastics through the demonstration of automated, advanced manufacturing techniques.

David Erb

R&D Program Manager

Dr. Roberto Lopez-Anido, P.E.
Dr. Roberto Lopez-Anido, P.E.

Malcolm G. Long Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Jonathan Roy
Jonathan Roy

Structural Thermoplastics Research Engineer

David Erb
David Erb

R&D Program Manager

Contact Structural Thermoplastics & Smart Materials

  • General Information

    Thank you for contacting the Structural Thermoplastics & Smart Materials team at the Advanced Structures & Composites Center. We look forward to working with you!

Research Overview

The Alfond Advanced Manufacturing Lab for Structural Thermoplastics was developed in 2015 to facilitate research in long-fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites. We are discovering mechanical properties, studying viscoelastic behavior during heating and forming, and performing computer-simulated modeling techniques for fiber-reinforced composite materials.

The lab utilizes a process called tape layup, in which spools of pre-impregnated thermoplastic tapes are cut to length, orientated, and ultrasonically welded on a 2-axis motion table. The table’s ability to both translate and rotate allows tailored blanks to be engineered for specific material properties.  This process minimizes waste while decreasing both the time and cost of developing high-strength structural composite components. The tailored blanks are then heated and formed in a 700 ton, fast reaction manufacturing press.

The lab also devotes a large effort to the development of 3D printed thermoplastic molds using a Fortus 900mc 3D printer which allows additive manufacturing of parts up to 36” x 24” x 36”. The Fortus 900mc is capable of using more than 13 different thermoplastic filaments including high-performance thermoplastic polymers such as ULTEM 9085,  ULTEM 1010, (PEI blends), or polyethersulfone (PPSF/PPSU) at temperatures as high as 400°C.

These high-performance polymers provide enough thermal stability for the production of thermoplastic molds used in forming lower-temperature composite materials. The concept uses these high-temperature molds for thermoforming reinforced composites made from lower-temperature thermoplastics that have been pre-processed from tailored blanks. The blanks are later placed in a hydraulic press for thermoforming.

Featured Research

Lightweighting Military Ground Vehicles

A partnership with the ASCC and US Army DEVCOM Ground Vehicle System Center was formed to develop technology to reduce the weight of military ground vehicles with fiber-reinforced thermoplastic materials that reduce cost, maintain structural integrity and allow for rapid deployment.

Additive Manufacturing Mold Benefits

  • Shorter lead-time
  • Less expensive
  • Faster cycle time
  • Uses less energy
  • Lighter

AM ABS/Sheet metal Clad, Compression Mold Set

Composite-Concrete Beam

This is a technology that uses hybrid thermoplastics in which the bean is outfitted with welded shear studs. This research was commissioned by the Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the development of a stiffened panel system for use in load-bearing hybrid composite-concrete structures.

Figure 1. ERDC Hybrid Composite-Concrete Beam

Figure 2: ERDC Corrugated Shape Concept Design