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A New Era for Composites in the Marine Industry - Growth Opportunities

By Alex Whatley, MARINEi Knowledge Exchange Officer, University of Plymouth.

When the UK Composites Leadership Forum published their long term strategy in 2016, they highlighted the exceptional growth opportunities for composites over the next two decades. The UK has the potential to grow its current £2.3 billion composites product market to more than £12 billion by the year 2030.  The UK Government regards composites as an important technology which can help to drive the development of high value manufacturing in the UK.

The benefits of composites

In marine technology, composites can offer a wide range of benefits when compared to more conventional materials such as steel and aluminium:

·        They have very good strength to weight characteristics. Marine structures made from composites typically weigh 50% less than similar steel structures.

·        Due to their lighter weight, they can significantly improve fuel efficiency, which reduces running costs and carbon emissions.

·        A lighter weight hull and structure can enable vessels to carry more people or cargo using the same power output or, in the case of powerboats and yachts, to achieve a higher speed through the water.

·        The materials are very durable and not susceptible to issues such as corrosion and rotting, and so result in lower maintenance costs. The lifetime savings on maintenance can be very high when compared with steel.

·        Composite structures are relatively easy to repair.

·        Composite hulls can be designed so that they have extra thickness in areas that have to cope with a higher load.

·        With composites, it is possible to mould complex shaped structures, such as propellers, without any seams or joins. (This has led to composites being widely used in the manufacture of wind turbine blades.)

Composites in marine craft

Fibre-reinforced polymer composites (FRPs) have been used in boat building since the late 1940s. Within the commercial sector, their use has mainly been confined to smaller vessels, especially leisure craft, typically those less than 50 meters in length. One of the main reasons for this is the set-up cost for creating a mould for the hull. If you are producing a large number of craft to the same design, then this becomes cost effective. By contrast, larger ships tend to be ‘one off’ designs, so the cost of making them in composite materials is much less attractive (The main exception to this rule is the military, where speed, stealth and range are prioritised over production costs).

Another key barrier has been the fact that shipyards around the world have been used to working with steel for generations and can be resistant to switching to a new material which they do not understand so well. Furthermore, it is a material which requires a completely new skillset in order to use it to its full potential. As a result, the use of composites in ships has mostly been limited to specific parts of the structure, where the strength and lightness of the material can be taken advantage of without disrupting the core shipbuilding process. (Examples include hatches, ducts, pipework, ballast tanks and propeller shafts.)

However, despite the above barriers, the next ten years could see composites expanding into shipbuilding in a major way…

Dawn of the ‘Fibreship’

The Fibreship is a major EU-funded, three-year project (2017-2020) with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of using FRP composite materials to construct the entire hull and superstructure of ships longer than 50 metres. The project spans three vessel categories: light merchant ships, passenger transport ships (including cruise ships), and special service vessels.

A consortium of 18 partners spread across 11 countries is involved in what is one of the largest innovation projects funded by the EU, with a budget of 11 million Euros. The scope of the project   covers innovation in materials, new design techniques, and the creation of efficient production methodologies for larger ships made from FRP materials.

Whatever the final results of the project, it will push the boundaries of what can be achieved with composites technology, and the ripples from this will be felt throughout the marinetech industry.

A focus for innovation and commercial opportunities

All of the above means that, in the coming years, there will be excellent commercial opportunities for innovative composite suppliers in the marine technology industry.

There will be continuing demand for materials that are stronger, lighter and more durable. A wider range of resins is being explored, including epoxies, vinyl esters, polyester, polyurethane resins, and phenolic resins that are highly fire resistant. New types of fibre are being used including carbon fibres, basalt and aramid fibres.

Material joining techniques will need to be improved and the whole process of ship building will require new thinking in order to exploit all the benefits of composites. There will also be increased demand for more complex and specialised shapes of the type that composites can deliver.

Within Cornwall, we have a number of progressive companies working in this field, such as Composite Integration Ltd, who specialise in resin transfer moulding and resin infusion processes. Composite Integration’s innovative work in resin infusion has allowed them to diversify into larger marine structures, such as hulls and decks.

Finally, composites present an opportunity for more ‘intelligent’ materials. Some composites will have sensors built in or will be designed so that the material itself is the transmission medium. In aerospace, work is already underway on ‘self-healing’ composites. These contain tiny pockets of unset resin which activate if any small cracks appear and ‘automatically’ fill them in. With composites, there is bound to be a high degree of technology transfer between the aerospace, automotive and marine industries, which will accelerate the pace of innovation.

 

Marine-i will be hosting a special Discovery Room Event on Composites in early May 2018. Full details will follow soon on our Events page, so watch this space!