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The resins that are used in fibre reinforced composites can also be referred to as 'polymers'. All polymers exhibit an important common property in that they are composed of long chain-like molecules consisting of many simple repeating units. Man-made polymers are generally called 'synthetic resins' or simply 'resins'. Polymers can be classified under two types, 'thermoplastic' and 'thermosetting', according to the effect of heat on their properties.
Thermoplastics, like metals, soften with heating and eventually melt, hardening again with cooling. This process of crossing the softening or melting point on the temperature scale can be repeated as often as desired without any appreciable effect on the material properties in either state. Typical thermoplastics include nylon, polypropylene and ABS, and these can be reinforced, although usually only with short, chopped fibres such as glass.
Thermosetting materials, or 'thermosets', are formed from a chemical reaction in situ, where the resin and hardener or resin and catalyst are mixed and then undergo a non-reversible chemical reaction to form a hard, infusible product. In some thermosets, such as phenolic resins, volatile substances are produced as by-products (a 'condensation' reaction). Other thermosetting resins such as polyester and epoxy cure by mechanisms that do not produce any volatile by products and thus are much easier to process ('addition' reactions). Once cured, thermosets will not become liquid again if heated, although above a certain temperature their mechanical properties will change significantly. This temperature is known as the Glass Transition Temperature (Tg), and varies widely according to the particular resin system used, its degree of cure and whether it was mixed correctly. Above the Tg, the molecular structure of the thermoset changes from that of a rigid crystalline polymer to a more flexible, amorphous polymer. This change is reversible on cooling back below the Tg. Above the Tg properties such as resin modulus (stiffness) drop sharply, and as a result the compressive and shear strength of the composite does too. Other properties such as water resistance and colour stability also reduce markedly above the resin's Tg.
Although there are many different types of resin in use in the composite industry, the majority of structural parts are made with three main types, namely polyester, vinylester and epoxy.
Published courtesy of David Cripps, Gurit