Dimensionally and environmentally ultra-stable polymer composites reinforced with carbon fibres


The quest to develop materials that enable the manufacture of dimensionally ultra-stable structures for critical-dimension components in spacecraft has led to much research over many decades and the evolution of carbon fibre reinforced polymer materials. This has resulted in structural designs that feature a near-zero coefficient of thermal expansion. However, the dimensional instabilities that result from moisture ingression and release remain the fundamental vulnerability of the matrix, which restricts many applications. Here, we address this challenge by developing a space-qualifiable physical surface barrier that blends within the mechanical properties of the composite, thus becoming part of the composite itself. The resulting enhanced composite features mechanical integrity and a strength that is superior to the underlying composite, while remaining impervious to moisture and outgassing. We demonstrate production capability for a model-sized component for the Sentinel-5 mission and demonstrate such capability for future European Space Agency (ESA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) programmes such as Copernicus Extension, Earth Explorer and Science Cosmic Visions.

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Fig. 1: Challenges associated with material selection for ultra-stable space structures.
Fig. 2: Stress modelling within CFRP and coated components.
Fig. 3: Structural characterization and moisture barrier enhancement of CFRP.
Fig. 4: Adhesion and surface properties characterization of BECFRP.
Fig. 5: Optical enhancement of BECFRP.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in Figshare with the identifier https://doi.org/10.15126/surreydata.c.4609958.

Change history

  • 11 February 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.

  • 13 January 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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We thank Airbus for financial contributions. We thank EPSRC for contributing to the work via the graphene centre programme EP/L02263X/1 in helping to set up the initial infrastructure. We also thank D. Cox and V. Stolojan for the production of sample cross-sections and electron microscopy, T. Pozegic for help with gravimetric data collection and S. Hinder for the XPS analysis.

Author information

The programme was designed by S.R.P.S. and J.V.A. after discussions with T.S., M.F. and M.D. regarding the requirements that evolved after the individual phases. All authors contributed to various research and testing phases of the project. The manuscript was written by J.V.A., C.T.G.S., M.D. and S.R.P.S. All authors contributed and commented on the paper.

Correspondence to S. R. P. Silva.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Characterisation of the coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) for CFRP.

Linear expansion measurements for unidirectional UD0 CFRP and BECFRP (b) and unidirectional UD90 CFRP and BECFRP. (c) Co-efficient of thermal expansion measurements for unidirectional UD0 CFRP and BECFRP (d) and unidirectional UD90 CFRP and BECFRP. CFRP is shown in red, while BECFRP is shown in blue. 20 °C is highlighted in green.

Extended Data Fig. 2 List of results from µ-VCM tests.

The results show the total mass loss (TML) and the total amount of collected volatile condensable material (CVCM) of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) collected using a plate held at 77K with LN2. Some mass loss associated with the TML is due to water adsorbed onto the outer surface of the sample rather than contaminants trapped in the material. The uncoated CFRP reference sample was baked out at 125 °C for 14 days prior to analysis.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Dynamic Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) graphs.

DSC graphs for CFRP and (b) BECFRP highlighting the change the glass transition temperature (Tg).

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Anguita, J.V., Smith, C.T.G., Stute, T. et al. Dimensionally and environmentally ultra-stable polymer composites reinforced with carbon fibres. Nat. Mater. 19, 317–322 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-019-0565-3

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