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AFRL Researchers Push Limits in High-Temperature, Polymer Additive Manufacturing

Additively manufacture high temperature, polymer composite parts in a cost-efficient manner

Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory have demonstrated the ability to additively manufacture high temperature polymer composites for use in extreme environments. The material, made with carbon fiber infused polymer resin and selective laser sintering, has potential use in engine components and on the leading and tail edges of fighter jets in the future.

May 7, 2018 | Source: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, wpafb.af.mil, 20 Mar 2018, Marisa Alia-Novobilski

Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate are “turning up the heat” in the field of polymer additive manufacturing.

In conjunction with researchers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and the University of Louisville, the team successfully printed the highest-temperature capable, reinforced polymer composite parts using additive manufacturing. Consisting of a high temperature thermoset resin infused with carbon fiber filaments, this state-of-the art material breakthrough sets the stage for next generation, cost-efficient Air Force manufacturing needs.

“This is an extremely impactful breakthrough in composite material additive manufacturing,” said Dr. Hilmar Koerner, a scientist on the Polymer Matrix Composite Materials and Processing Research Team and the driving force behind the novel discovery. “These 3-D printed parts can withstand temperatures greater than 300 degrees Celsius, making them potentially useful for turbine engine replacement parts or in hot areas around engine exhaust.”

Polymer matrix composites are extremely attractive to Air Force researchers working on next-generation applications due to their light-weight properties and ability to withstand extreme conditions in high temperature environments. This plays an important role in increasing aircraft range while reducing fuel consumption, both of which are key to reducing operating costs over the long term.

While experimenting with high temperature polymer resins, Koerner and his team found that the polymers printed well, but when they removed the pieces from the powder bed for post-processing, the material would essentially “melt into puddles,” proving useless.

To counteract this issue and better enable molecules to entangle and form a shape under the heat of the laser, Koerner suggested adding carbon fiber filler to the resin material as a means of enabling better energy transfer from the laser to the matrix. The carbon fiber would cause the laser to heat the material much faster by absorbing the laser energy and conducting heat much faster than with the polymer alone.

As a result, the researchers successfully printed high temperature polymer composite sample pieces in multiple configurations, in what, to their knowledge, are the highest temperature capable, polymer composite parts made by additive manufacturing to this day.

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