Characterization of the Vacuum Assisted Resin Transfer Molding Process for Fabrication of Aerospace Composites

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Virginia Tech


This work was performed under a cooporative research effort sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in conjunction with the aerospace industry and acedemia. One of the primary goals of NASA is to improve the safety and affordability of commercial air flight. Part of this goal includes research to reduce fuel consumption by developing lightweight carbon fiber, polymer matrix composites to replace existing metallic airframe structure. In the Twenty-first Aircraft Technology Program (TCAT) efforts were focused on developing novel processing methods to fabricate tailored composite airframe structure. The Vacuum Assisted Resin Transfer Molding (VARTM) processing technique offers a safer, more affordable alternative to manufacture large scale composite fuselages and wing structures. Vacuum assisted resin transfer molding is an infusion process originally developed for manufacturing of composites in the marine industry. The process is a variation of Resin Transfer Molding (RTM), where the rigid matched metal tooling is replaced on one side with a flexible vacuum bag. The entire process, including infusion and consolidation of the part, occurs at atmospheric pressure (101.5 kPa). High-performance composites with fiber volumes in the range of 45% to 50% can be achieved without the use of an autoclave. The main focus of the VARTM process development effort was to determine the feasibility of manufacturing aerospace quality composites with fiber volume fractions approaching 60%.

A science-based approach was taken, utilizing finite element process models to characterize and develop a full understanding of the VARTM infusion process as well as the interaction of the constituent materials. Achieving aerospace quality composites requires further development not only of the VARTM process, but also of the matrix resins and fiber preforms. The present work includes an investigation of recently developed epoxy matrix resins, including the characterization of the resin cure kinetics and flow behaviors. Two different fiber preform architectures were characterized to determine the response to compaction under VARTM conditions including a study to determine the effect of thickness on maximum achievable fiber volume fraction. Experiments were also conducted to determine the permeabilities of these preforms under VARTM flow conditions. Both the compaction response and the permeabilities of the preforms were fit to empirical models which can be used as input for future work to simulate VARTM infusion using process models.

Actual infusion experiments of these two types preforms were conducted using instrumented tools to determine the pressures and displacements that occur during VARTM infiltration. Flow experiments on glass tooling determined the fill-times and flow front evolution of preform specimens of various thicknesses. The results of these experiments can be used as validation of process model infusion simulations and to verify the compaction and permeability empirical models. Panels were infused with newly developed epoxy resins, cured and sectioned to determine final fiber volume fractions and part quality in an effort to verify both the infusion and compaction experimental data.

The preforms characterized were found to have both elastic and inelastic compression response. The maximum fiber volume fraction of the knitted fabrics was dependent on the amount of stacks in the preform specimen. This relationship was found in the determination of the Darcy permeabilities of the preforms. The results of the characterization of the two epoxy resin systems the show that the two resins have similar minimum viscosities but significantly different curing behaviors. Characterization of the VARTM process resulted in different infusion responses in the two preform specimens investigated. The response of the saturated preform to a recompaction after infusion indicated that a significant portion of the fiber volume lost during infusion could be recovered. Fiber volume and void-content analysis of flat composite panels fabricated in VARTM using the characterized resins and preforms resulted in void-free parts with fiber volumes over 58%. Results in the idealized compaction tests indicated fiber volumes as high as 60% were achievable with the knitted fabric. The work over the presented here has led to a more complete understanding of the VARTM process but also led to more questions concerning its feasibility as an aerospace composite manufacturing technique.



VARTM, Compaction, Infusion, Fiber-Preform, Permeability, Epoxy-Resin