U.S. global aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin recently announced that the F-35 Lightning II aircraft utilizes carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in the wingtip fairings. The F-35 is a stealth-capable military strike fighter born out of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Lockheed Martin’s manager for nanotechnology initiatives, Travis Earles, said that due to the extensive certification and testing needed for structural materials, it’s using the CNT composites for now only in non-load-bearing parts.
Several drivers have made the aerospace industry the foremost adopter of advanced composite materials, particularly those reinforced with carbon fiber. First is its demand for low-weight materials with high strength and stiffness, but the industry is also characterized by market dynamics that garner relatively wide profit margins. In addition, the ability to mold composite parts and components into curved and complex shapes is especially important in military applications where stealth is required. In fact, driven forward by advances in the military, composites have grown to constitute an average of 25% of aircraft by weight – including air transport, business aviation, rotorcraft, and military aircraft – since being first introduced in the 1940s (see the report Chasing Cars: Can Composites Catch Up to Steel? – client registration required).
CNTs are stiffer, lighter, and more thermally and electrically conductive than carbon fiber, and thus represent the next frontier of advanced composite materials. Given the enormous operating budgets of government-funded defense projects and the requirement for increasingly high performance, military aircraft represent an ideal frontrunner for the commercial adoption of nanocomposite materials. This positive traction in aerospace, combined with multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT) prices that have dropped from about $500/kg to $100/kg or less in the past five years (see the report The State of MWNTs: From Damascus to Motown – client registration required), paves the way for the penetration of nanocomposites in other high-volume applications, including automotive, oil and gas, marine, construction, and wind power. Clients should stay tuned for the next Advanced Materials State of the Market Report that will map out and forecast demand for emerging composites, identifying hot new areas of opportunity.