Aerospace giants like Boeing and Airbus are among the largest consumers of composite materials in the world. They utilize a variety of materials from glass fiber to carbon fiber for manufacturing everything from fuselage panels to seats. The strength-to-weight ratio of these composite materials is what allows manufacturers to continue building larger aircraft still capable of flying.
Now there is a new effort afoot, an effort to make largely composite airplanes more conductive to electricity. Why? To protect the aircraft from lightning strikes. The fact is that airplanes are routinely subject to lightning strikes as a matter of course. The problem with materials like carbon fiber is that they aren't very conductive.
A conductive material is a material that is capable of conducting, or transmitting, heat or electricity. For the purposes of this discussion, conductivity is the ability to transmit electricity from one location to the next. The outer skin of an airplane needs to be able to conduct electricity so as to dissipate it in the event of a lightning strike.
HOW THEY DO IT NOW
Modern aircraft can be built with structures containing up to 40% composite materials. As previously mentioned, fuselage panels are often made of carbon fiber. Managing lightning strikes with so much composite material requires using other materials that are more conductive.
The solution to lightning strikes right now is to combine carbon fiber structures with other components capable of conducting electricity. Engineers will build embedded wires, foils, and mesh systems into their planes in strategic locations. The solution works well enough, but it is not ideal.
These metal systems are subject to corrosion. Second, because they are built into a plane's carbon fiber air frame, they can be difficult service. An ideal solution would be to replace the metal components with a composite material that is inherently conductive by itself.
LOOKING AT HYBRID MATERIAL
A group of Chinese researchers studying the problem may have come up with a solution involving a hybrid product. The product, a nickel-coated carbon fiber veil, is already in use as a shield against electromagnetic interference. The researchers used the veil as a base for producing a standard carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). It was tested alongside a second CFRP with a copper foil mesh.