Thermoset polymers and composite materials are integral to today’s aerospace, automotive, marine and energy industries and will be vital to the next generation of lightweight, energy-efficient structures in these enterprises, owing to their excellent specific stiffness and strength, thermal stability and chemical resistance1,2,3,4,5. The manufacture of high-performance thermoset components requires the monomer to be cured at high temperatures (around 180 °C) for several hours, under a combined external pressure and internal vacuum6. Curing is generally accomplished using large autoclaves or ovens that scale in size with the component. Hence this traditional curing approach is slow, requires a large amount of energy and involves substantial capital investment6,7. Frontal polymerization is a promising alternative curing strategy, in which a self-propagating exothermic reaction wave transforms liquid monomers to fully cured polymers. We report here the frontal polymerization of a high-performance thermoset polymer that allows the rapid fabrication of parts with microscale features, three-dimensional printed structures and carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer composites. Precise control of the polymerization kinetics at both ambient and elevated temperatures allows stable monomer solutions to transform into fully cured polymers within seconds, reducing energy requirements and cure times by several orders of magnitude compared with conventional oven or autoclave curing approaches. The resulting polymer and composite parts possess similar mechanical properties to those cured conventionally. This curing strategy greatly improves the efficiency of manufacturing of high-performance polymers and composites, and is widely applicable to many industries.
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This research was conducted as part of the Center for Excellence for Self-Healing, Regeneration and Structural Remodeling, supported by the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research through award FA9550-16-1-0017. We thank J. Sung for preparing the micropatterned silicon substrates, T. Ross for sample photography, D. Loudermilk for graphics assistance, and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology for use of their facilities and equipment. I.D.R. thanks the US Department of Defense for a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. L.M.D. thanks the National Science Foundation for a Graduate Research Fellowship.
Nature thanks J. Pojman and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.