(Photo by Dr. Silvestre Pinho)
A computer model that accurately predicts how composite materials behave when damaged will make it easier to design lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft. Innovative computer codes form the basis of a computer model that shows in unprecedented detail how an aircraft's composite wing, for instance, would behave if it suffered small-scale damage, such as a bird strike. Any tiny cracks that spread through the composite material can be predicted using this model.

The codes are being developed by researchers at Imperial College London working with Airbus. The new model will enable panels to be made less bulky while still meeting safety margins demanded by the aviation industry. The result should be aircraft that are lighter than current designs, and use less fuel and produce fewer greenhouse emissions.

Aircraft designers using the new model will be able to explore the damage tolerance of alternative designs without building so many prototypes or conducting so many physical tests. Composites are not just lighter than the metals they are replacing, but also stronger. However, the failure mechanisms affecting them are not as well understood because the industry has several decades more experience using metals.