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New method for making composite materials -

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Robyn Williams: Climate, carbon, oil and petrol on our minds constantly, but rather than sticking
to old fashioned transport systems, can we transform our whole approach? Three years ago I met
Bronwyn Fox at Deakin University in Geelong and saw her revolutionary fibres for building cars and
planes. So what's happened since?

Bronwyn Fox: I think the focus very much three years ago was about looking at cars and how we could
improve the fuel efficiency of cars using composites, and that's really starting to happen at the
moment, particularly in Australia where the industry is quite small and we can experiment with
different things and try out new materials without it having a huge effect on a multi-million
dollar market all over the US, for example. Now I'm really interested in planes and aerospace
materials, and it's really interesting, one of the most damaging things you can do in terms of the
environment as an individual is fly somewhere.

A return flight from, say, Melbourne to London, it's about 1,200 kilograms of fuel per passenger
that's required to fly you from Melbourne to London, and that releases about 4,000 kilograms of CO2
into the environment, which is a huge problem, particularly as more and more of us are flying. We
have cheap airlines with cheap flights that are flying us everywhere. We're using planes like
buses, and more and more of the world's population are flying, and particularly once the population
of China start flying, it's going to be a huge problem.

Robyn Williams: Do you know they're building 97 new airports in China as we speak?

Bronwyn Fox: That's amazing. I've seen figures from IATA that predict that, I think, by 2020
there'll be three times as many people flying around the world as there are now. And there was
certainly all that anecdotal evidence when the planes stopped flying after 9/11 of just how clear
the sky was. It really is very damaging.

Robyn Williams: If the plane is on that know, the 12 o'clock to Sydney flying anyway,
whether I'm on it or not, how is it that I'm responsible for x-amount of kilos?

Bronwyn Fox: This is the whole thing, we're not going to stop flying, are we, so we have to come up
with a way to make planes smarter, lighter, more fuel efficient, more efficient engines, and that's
where I think Boeing have made a huge advance with the 787 Dreamliner which is 50% carbon by
weight. The problem is that they've got 900 orders on the books, they just cannot make parts fast
enough, and the main roadblock are these huge pressure ovens that they use to make the 787 which
are very gas intensive, very electricity intensive and very slow. It takes probably an average of
20 hours to cure a part. That's a huge roadblock when you're making a plane. We've got a process
here at Deakin called the Quickstep process. It's an Australian invention and it can make composite
parts really rapidly and very cheaply.

Robyn Williams: And so how quickly could you actually catch up with the backlog that they have?

Bronwyn Fox: It's suited to a number of different parts. It might not be possible yet to do an
entire nosecone from, say, the Quickstep process, as they do in Wichita with Spirit AeroSystems,
however it's an order of magnitude faster, it can be up to ten times faster to cure the part.

Robyn Williams: And what about cars? You mentioned the cars and their fuel efficiency, lots of
people don't realise that only about 15% of the fuel you put in your tank goes to the wheels to
drive it forward, and of that I think about 7% goes away as heat, so you've only got 6% that's
driving you forward, which is a ridiculous component of the fuel, a huge waste. So how can you make
a difference?

Bronwyn Fox: That's very true, but of that 6% that you were talking about, you want that force to
be taking you as far as possible. Newton's second law, F=ma, if you reduce the mass of the vehicle
you reduce the amount of force it takes to move it. So we can produce much more efficient cars.

Robyn Williams: And so has it reached the cars now, your Quickstep composite material?

Bronwyn Fox: We've made car bonnets essentially, and not in production vehicles, in concept cars.
So that's the state of play at the moment. We're still looking at concept cars, futuristic
vehicles. But there was a bonnet produced for the HRT427 a few years ago using the Quickstep
process. That was produced by a visionary engineer at HSV, and that car actually broke the
Australian record recently for the largest price for a car in Australia ever to sell for, it sold
for $920,000 just a few weeks ago. So it just shows there is a definite appeal to carbon fibre, and
it will get out there. I think the Australian car industry has realised that we can't make small
cars over here, we can't compete with all the imports, so the way to go is to make the large cars
that we make really well but make them smarter. We're not sacrificing performance, we're just
improving fuel efficiency.

Robyn Williams: What's the secret, as far as you can tell me, of the Quickstep process?

Bronwyn Fox: It's a really interesting process. The secret is that it uses a fluid to transfer heat
to cure the part rather than a gas. Fluid is a much more efficient heat transfer. The inventor
actually came up with the idea when he was having a bath. He was building an aircraft called the
Eagle which eventually got sold to Malaysia, his name is Neil Graham, and he was trying to think of
a better way to make composites and he was in the bath and just thought, well, why don't we give
the composite a bath! CSIRO did an enormous amount of research in the early 90s on the process and
developed the prototype, and one of the scientists there, Jonathan Hodgkin, was my PhD supervisor
and that's how we ended up doing research on the process at Deakin.

Robyn Williams: One thing that puzzles me, having been here three years ago, and, as you said, 90s,
the concept...why does it take so long? I know you don't want to disrupt the industry, but I would
have thought a greater sense of urgency would overwhelm both the aircraft and motor industry these
days when they want to make a difference.

Bronwyn Fox: Definitely the message has gotten through to the aircraft industry. The automotive
industry I think is still taking a bit of time to catch up, and they'll learn from the aerospace
experience. It's to do with us being quite conservative, particularly engineers such as myself.
We're very conservative with adopting new materials, we don't want anyone to be hurt, we don't want
there to be any side effects, so we want to make sure that's absolutely spot on, and it can take a
lot time to convince people to use these materials. There's also the cost aspect as well. Carbon
fibre composites are quite expensive, but now that Boeing are requiring so much material to make a
plane, the production across the world is going up enormously. So carbon fibre plants are popping
up all over the world, and we're hoping to get one in Australia.

Robyn Williams: You've got a colleague with you. Why don't you introduce me?

Bronwyn Fox: I have. This is Betime Nuhiji. I've worked with her for seven years. She's doing a PhD
on nano-composites which is the next generation of composites. We can further enhance the
properties of carbon fibre composites by adding nano-particles. At the moment, for example, in the
787, the Achilles' heel of a composite is where the layers actually come apart, it's called
delamination, and one of the things Betime is looking at is how nano-particles and incorporating
them into normal composites can enhance the properties and prevent that happening a little bit.

Betime Nuhiji: I don't actually work with carbon nano-tubes, I work with nano-clays, so they're
actually a silicate platelet. So I work with epoxy and the nano-clays, so by combining them we
actually strengthen the material, we strengthen the matrix which will then go into the carbon
fibres which hopefully will potentially strengthen the whole composite itself.

Robyn Williams: Give me a picture...if you're working with something that's nano it's obviously
invisible to the eye, so how do you manipulate them, what do you use?

Betime Nuhiji: In order to actually see them we have to use characterisation techniques. So we get
to use transmission electron microscopes which pretty much focus down to the nano scale or even to
the micron scale so you can actually see the nano-particles themselves.

Robyn Williams: And you're adding these to the general material?

Betime Nuhiji: To an epoxy system. So it's a polymer system.

Robyn Williams: I see. So when will this be incorporated into a new scheme?

Bronwyn Fox: We're working on it a the moment. We have two themes of research where we're
incorporating nano-clays into conventional composites, and also incorporating carbon nano-tubes. We
hope they'll act as tiny, tiny nano-scale z-pins to help hold the laminate together under stresses.
We've found that the Quickstep process actually provides us some advantages in processing
nano-composites, in particular it's very good at separating out the particles, and the holy grail
of nano-composites is to make sure you don't get any agglomerates, that all of the particles are as
separate as possible so that you get a true nano-scale enhancement of properties rather than having
lumps of macro-sized things stuck in your laminate.

Robyn Williams: Of course when I get on my plane or when I get into a motorcar, I want it to be not
just light but very, very strong. Will it be?

Bronwyn Fox: Yes, it will be very strong. There will be enhanced properties, some of them
mechanical. There will also be enhanced barrier properties, things like fire retardancy which is
really important, not so much on your bike, but defiantly if you're in a plane you want to make
sure your environment if fireproof.

Robyn Williams: Well, very, very good luck to you.

Bronwyn Fox: Thank you very much.

Robyn Williams: And when do you think I will get into my plane or get into my car and see one of
your composites actually there?

Bronwyn Fox: We're looking at making helicopter parts at the moment. Probably you might see some
Quickstep parts on planes in the next generation. So Boeing have made this huge leap forward in
making the 787 with the twin-aisle aircraft. The next one to be replaced is the 737 and there's a
huge opportunity to get an increased number of composite parts on the new 737, the single-aisle
plane that we generally find in Australia going domestically.

Robyn Williams: So even though it's Boeing we could have the feeling that it's Australian-made.

Bronwyn Fox: To an extent, yes, and it's all because of one guy in a bath in Western Australia.