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University of Ulster Spinout Company Weaves With 21st Century Twist

31 October 2013

A University of Ulster spin out company Axis Composites is giving weaving a 21st century twist to create advanced composite materials which will revolutionise the global composites industry.

Axis Composites was established two years ago to bridge the gap between 3D advanced materials research at Ulster’s Engineering Composites Research Centre (ECRE) at Jordanstown and the commercialisation of 3D woven materials for Advanced Composites

The Belfast based company marked a major milestone this week when a bespoke loom will be ready to produce the first prototype 3D carbon fibre fabrics.

Weaving is not new in Belfast: Ulster’s strong weaving tradition dates back over 300 years. Originally it was a cottage industry with hand looms in homes dotted around the shores of Lough Neagh. With industrialisation, hundreds of the rural weavers moved to Belfast, Lisburn and Lurgan and by the late 1800’s, Belfast was the linen capital of the world.

Axis Composites plans to build on Ulster’s weaving heritage to generate a world class composites weaving industry producing ultra modern hi-tech fabrics.

Dr Alistair McIlhagger, Reader at University of Ulster and Director of Axis Composites explains:“We are combining 21st century technologies with centuries of Ulster’s industrial weaving heritage to develop hi-tech materials which will have many applications such as in the manufacture of aircraft, space vehicles, surveillance drones, wind turbines or even, protective garments. In fact, any industry where strength, resilience, durability and flexibility with minimum weight is desired.

He continues: “For example, aircraft are traditionally built from strong metals such as aluminium and titanium but these materials are also heavy. Rising fuel costs mean that aircraft manufacturers are constantly seeking new materials to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. In essence, clever design will reduce service costs by cutting maintenance costs.”

Up until now Axis Composites has created and tested the 3D woven materials in a virtual environment but the company is now able to manufacture prototype 3D fabrics to demonstrate the special properties of these hi-tech textiles.

A traditional loom has been rethreaded with individual strands of carbon fibre in preparation for its ‘re-commissioning’ - the loom has the capacity to place precisely 2304 stands. Axis Composites has adapted the weave process to weave in three dimensions instead of the traditional two.

Dr McIlhagger continues: “Just think of it as adding a through-stitch and instead of the usual threads spun from plants such as flax, cotton and wool, we are using strands of advanced fibres such as carbon and basalt.”

The 3D carbon fibre coming off the loom may have the appearance of woven ‘cloth’ but the carbon fibre strands used in the production process, coupled with the weaving technique, make the finished product very different.

The result is a 3D woven carbon which is stronger than metal yet lighter. Just like flax, the carbon strands can be woven into a multitude of different widths, thicknesses, patterns and strengths and the third dimension, which comes from the through stitch, can also vary in thickness, width and pattern.

Steven Kirby, Managing Director of Axis Composites, comes from a textile industry background.

“Just when weaving was all but finished in Belfast, we are starting it up again to make high performance materials and I am confident the project will create many high quality jobs”.

He continues: “Only five or six companies in the world currently have the capability to weave 3D carbon fibre but none of them have either the wealth of experience in composite materials or associated design skills that we have at our disposal at Axis Composites.”

“Carbon fibre is already widely used in the aerospace industry but in a laminated form where multiple layers of the material are heated under pressure to produce a composite.”

He adds: “Although our initial focus is the aerospace industry, there are many exciting possibilities where this new advanced material can be used – renewable energy, marine, aerospace, automotive industries. In fact, think of any industry and you’d be hard pressed to come up with one that doesn’t have a need for a high performance material that is stronger, lighter, more durable than what is currently used”.

Commercialisation Manager at the University of Ulster, Dr John MacRae says Axis Composites is one of the most interesting and unusual projects he has ever worked on.

“Typical software projects within the University – iPhone and android apps, social media and that kind of thing didn't exist in any form 10 or 20 years ago but the industrial textile heritage associated with this project goes back centuries. It is nice to know that the traditions, skills and machines developed locally by past generations can still create jobs today. It is nicer still to look through an aircraft window and realise that the technology keeping the wings together has its roots in the thatched cottage around the shores of Lough Neagh hundreds of years ago.”

Notes to Editors

Earlier this year, the UK Government pledged to invest £2 billion to create a UK Aerospace Technology Institute to develop lighter, quieter, faster and more fuel-efficient aircraft.

The Government will pump £1 billion into the centre, while eight aerospace companies including Bombardier, Rolls-Royce, GKN and Airbus have pledged the other half.

By 2030, it is estimated that there will be a global demand for an estimated 27,000 new passenger aircraft worth £2.5 trillion.

Britain has the second-biggest aerospace industry after the US and a 17 per cent share of the global market.