Materials Science in Action: Bercella’s “Living” Carbon-Fiber Nanocomposites

by TJ McCue
- Jan 14 2016 - 5 min read
Dr. Laura Marchini works in the Bercella materials lab. Courtesy Bercella.

To say that Formula 1 race cars are fast would be a silly understatement. F1 cars can reach speeds of 220 miles per hour, generating in excess of five Gs while accelerating around corners.

So it goes without saying that a serious amount of design, engineering, and fabricating goes into these cars. According to The Telegraph (UK), a midtier car and team can cost more than $120 million per year. Given that the structural skins of those cars are often made of nanocomposites such as carbon fiber, one of the world’s super materials, it makes sense that the chassis system is estimated to be $20 million of that total. Materials science is the new black.

Bercella’s headquarters in Parma, Italy. Courtesy Bercella.

At the center of this “new black” is Bercella, an Italian engineering and manufacturing company that has produced more than 500 of the structural skins, also known as monocoques (in French), for an impressive customer list of Formula racing giants, including Dallara.

But it’s not just the 500 structural skins it has manufactured that make Bercella, with its 50-plus employees, an innovator. Nor is it the huge autoclave that looks like you could drive a small pickup truck inside it. Bercella stands alone, for a company its size, because it has invested in creating a leading-edge materials lab.

“Within the development of our engineering services in 2011 to 2012, we understood a material lab would have been a one-of-a-kind feature in the industry; therefore, we went for it,” says Massimo Bercella, vice president of business development at Bercella. “The ability to design and test materials in-house is something pretty unique, we believe, and it’s a huge help for our engineers dealing with structural simulations and process design.”

Seeking out a materials scientist with a strong research background, Bercella hired Dr. Laura Marchini. Marchini proposed to create something innovative in collaboration with Italy’s Institute of Materials for Electronics and Magnetism (IMEM), where Marchini previously worked as a researcher. She calls the innovation “living material” because it is dynamic and can change with external conditions. The patent-pending invention is the intellectual property of Bercella, and the company is exploring various markets and licensing agreements.

Scientists working in the Bercella materials lab. Courtesy Bercella.

“It’s a research program that I’m developing at Bercella,” Marchini says. “I worked as materials scientist for a while and then decided to move to industry. I sought out the right company and found Bercella. When I started to work there, [Bercella CEO] Franco Bercella gave me a great deal of freedom in selecting research topics. I was the first scientist, but there are many mechanical and aerospace engineers at Bercella.

“The idea is to develop a sensor that is so small that the structure is not affected by the presence of it inside the composite component,” Marchini continues. “The problem of embedded sensors is that their presence is detrimental in terms of performance for the component, so I focused on the carbon fiber.”

The detriments Marchini refers to can be related to the size or weight of the sensor materials, which can be too heavy. Using carbon fiber as the basis of the sensor minimizes the detrimental effects, and keeping the sensor material the same as the “host” structure means that the sensor will “follow” the host structure in terms of temperature and stress reaction.

In this video, pressure, or stress, is applied to a composite panel made with “smart” carbon fiber, which is able to sense the pressure and then trigger an electric impulse. The impulse can be collected anywhere on the panel and transferred to a computational unit.

Marchini starts with the carbon fiber and then makes the fibers functional with nanostructures that create piezoelectric properties, or electrical charges in response to mechanical stress. Many research groups are working with nanotubes, according to Marchini, but Bercella is focusing on nanostructures because they are cheaper to grow and do not require ultra-high vacuum systems.

“These sensors can record everything that occurs to a fuselage or a car chassis,” she says. “Temperature, pressure, and stress are just some of the variables that can be tracked and measured. This makes it possible to predict failures because you can continuously monitor the component. If the structure has been exposed to a large number of stresses in its life, you can remove it before a sudden collapse or failure happens.”

“You can have all of this without adding any foreign objects—such as the optic fibers that are currently used, for example—or any weight to your part,” Massimo Bercella adds.

Massimo Bercella stands in front of Bercella’s enormous autoclave. Courtesy Bercella.

Technically, Bercella’s patent-pending invention relates to a zinc-oxide-based piezoelectric device that can be used both as a sensor, for active structural monitoring, and as an actuator, for shape-changing objects or morphing effects. At its core, this piezoelectric device is made up of at least two carbon-fiber crossed yarns. At the intersection of the yarns is a zinc-oxide layer in a nanostructure form that is then connected to a computer.

The implications of the material, or piezoelectric device, could have dramatic effects on industries ranging from automotive to aerospace to aviation (not to mention consumers, who stand to benefit from safer products using material that can sense and correct failures). As Bercella’s patent application states: “In the aviation industry, a sensor according to the invention may be used as the stress sensor integrated on primary structures such as spars, ribs, and paneling. The piezoelectric device can also be used as an actuator to permit a morphological change of moving surfaces of an aircraft, in particular the geometry of the wing, so as to produce the appropriate changes in the aerodynamic forces that permit improved governability of the aircraft.”

Bercella knows that most of its customers are looking at smarter ways to design and build everything from cars to trains to airplanes. More so, its customers are in tech-savvy industries that are looking for ways to collect more data and get feedback on their structures and devices. Smarter, responsive materials offer a way to stay ahead of the competition.

“I believe this material will follow the path of every ultra-high-tech material,” Massimo Bercella says. “The first applications will be in the defense or space industry, then aviation; race cars; and, eventually, road cars. Generally speaking, automotive approaching the composites industry will be a terrific market for Bercella in three to five years.”

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