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Fiberglass (or fibreglass) (also called glass-reinforced plastic, GRP, glass-fiber reinforced plastic, or GFRP) is a fiber reinforced polymer made of a plastic matrix reinforced by fine fibers of glass. It is also known as GFK (for German: Glasfaserverstärkter Kunststoff).
Fiberglass is a lightweight, extremely strong, and robust material. Although strength properties are somewhat lower than carbon fiber and it is less stiff, the material is typically far less brittle, and the raw materials are much less expensive. Its bulk strength and weight properties are also very favorable when compared to metals, and it can be easily formed using molding processes.
Common uses of fiberglass include high performance aircraft (gliders), boats, automobiles, baths, hot tubs, water tanks, roofing, pipes, cladding, casts, surfboards and external door skins.
Unlike glass fibers used for insulation, for the final structure to be strong, the fiber's surfaces must be almost entirely free of defects, as this permits the fibers to reach gigapascal tensile strengths. If a bulk piece of glass were to be defect free, then it would be equally as strong as glass fibers; however, it is generally impractical to produce bulk material in a defect-free state outside of laboratory conditions.
The manufacturing process for glass fibers suitable for reinforcement uses large furnaces to gradually melt the silica sand, limestone, kaolin clay, fluorspar, colemanite, dolomite and other minerals to liquid form. Then it is extruded through bushings, which are bundles of very small orifices (typically 5–25 micrometres in diameter for E-Glass, 9 micrometres for S-Glass). These filaments are then sized (coated) with a chemical solution. The individual filaments are now bundled together in large numbers to provide a roving. The diameter of the filaments, as well as the number of filaments in the roving determine its weight. This is typically expressed in yield-yards per pound (how many yards of fiber in one pound of material, thus a smaller number means a heavier roving, example of standard yields are 225yield, 450yield, 675yield) or in tex-grams per km (how many grams 1 km of roving weighs, this is inverted from yield, thus a smaller number means a lighter roving, examples of standard tex are 750tex, 1100tex, 2200tex).
These rovings are then either used directly in a composite application such as pultrusion, filament winding (pipe), gun roving (automated gun chops the glass into short lengths and drops it into a jet of resin, projected onto the surface of a mold), or used in an intermediary step, to manufacture fabrics such as chopped strand mat (CSM) (made of randomly oriented small cut lengths of fiber all bonded together), woven fabrics, knit fabrics or uni-directional fabrics.
A sort of coating, or primer, is used which both helps protect the glass filaments for processing/manipulation as well as ensure proper bonding to the resin matrix, thus allowing for transfer of shear loads from the glass fibers to the thermoset plastic. Without this bonding, the fibers can 'slip' in the matrix and localised failure would ensue..
An individual structural glass fiber is both stiff and strong in tension and compression—that is, along its axis. Although it might be assumed that the fiber is weak in compression, it is actually only the long aspect ratio of the fiber which makes it seem so; i.e., because a typical fiber is long and narrow, it buckles easily. On the other hand, the glass fiber is weak in shear—that is, across its axis. Therefore if a collection of fibers can be arranged permanently in a preferred direction within a material, and if the fibers can be prevented from buckling in compression, then that material will become preferentially strong in that direction.
Furthermore, by laying multiple layers of fiber on top of one another, with each layer oriented in various preferred directions, the stiffness and strength properties of the overall material can be controlled in an efficient manner. In the case of fiberglass, it is the plastic matrix which permanently constrains the structural glass fibers to directions chosen by the designer. With chopped strand mat, this directionality is essentially an entire two dimensional plane; with woven fabrics or unidirectional layers, directionality of stiffness and strength can be more precisely controlled within the plane.
A fiberglass component is typically of a thin "shell" construction, sometimes filled on the inside with structural foam, as in the case of surfboards. The component may be of nearly arbitrary shape, limited only by the complexity and tolerances of the mold used for manufacturing the shell.
|Material||Specific gravity||Tensile strength MPa (ksi)||Compressive strength MPa (ksi)|
|Polyester resin (Not reinforced)||1.28||55 (7.98)||140 (20.3)|
|Polyester and Chopped Strand Mat Laminate 30% E-glass||1.4||100 (14.5)||150 (21.8)|
|Polyester and Woven Rovings Laminate 45% E-glass||1.6||250 (36.3)||150 (21.8)|
|Polyester and Satin Weave Cloth Laminate 55% E-glass||1.7||300 (43.5)||250 (36.3)|
|Polyester and Continuous Rovings Laminate 70% E-glass||1.9||800 (116)||350 (50.8)|
|E-Glass Epoxy composite||1.99||1,770 (257)|
|S-Glass Epoxy composite||1.95||2,358 (342)|
Fiberglass is an immensely versatile material which combines its light weight with an inherent strength to provide a weather resistant finish, with a variety of surface textures.
The development of fiber-reinforced plastic for commercial use was being extensively researched in the 1930s. It was particularly of interest to the aviation industry. Mass production of glass strands was accidentally discovered in 1932 when a researcher at the Owens-Illinois directed a jet of compressed air at a stream of molten glass and produced fibers. Owens joined up with the Corning company in 1935 and the method was adapted by Owens Corning to produce its patented "Fiberglas" (one "s"). A suitable resin for combining the "Fiberglas" with a plastic was developed in 1936 by du Pont. The first ancestor of modern polyester resins is Cyanamid's of 1942. Peroxide curing systems were used by then.
During World War II, fiberglass was developed as a replacement for the molded plywood used in aircraft radomes (fiberglass being transparent to microwaves). Its first main civilian application was for building of boats and sports-car bodies, where it gained acceptance in the 1950s. Its use has broadened to the automotive and sport equipment sectors as well as aircraft, although its use there is now partly being taken over by carbon fiber which weighs less per given volume and is stronger both by volume and by weight. Fiberglass uses also include hot tubs, pipes for drinking water and sewers, office plant display containers and flat roof systems.
Fiberglass is also used in the telecommunications industry for shrouding the visual appearance of antennas, due to its RF permeability and low signal attenuation properties. It may also be used to shroud the visual appearance of other equipment where no signal permeability is required, such as equipment cabinets and steel support structures, due to the ease with which it can be molded, manufactured and painted to custom designs, to blend in with existing structures or brickwork. Other uses include sheet form made electrical insulators and other structural components commonly found in the power industries.
Because of fiberglass's light weight and durability, it is often used in protective equipment, such as helmets. Many sports use fiberglass protective gear, such as modern goaltender masks and newer baseball catcher's masks.
Storage tanks can be made of fiberglass with capacities up to about 300 tonnes. The smaller tanks can be made with chopped strand mat cast over a thermoplastic inner tank which acts as a preform during construction. Much more reliable tanks are made using woven mat or filament wound fibre with the fibre orientation at right angles to the hoop stress imposed in the side wall by the contents. They tend to be used for chemical storage because the plastic liner (often polypropylene) is resistant to a wide range of strong chemicals. Fiberglass tanks are also used for septic tanks.
Glass reinforced plastics are also used in the house building market for the production of roofing laminate, door surrounds, over-door canopies, window canopies and dormers, chimneys, coping systems, heads with keystones and sills. The use of fiberglass for these applications provides for a much faster installation and due to the reduced weight manual handling issues are reduced. With the advent of high volume manufacturing processes it is possible to construct fiberglass brick effect panels which can be used in the construction of composite housing. These panels can be constructed with the appropriate insulation which reduces heat loss.
GRP and GRE pipe systems can be used for a variety of applications, above and under the ground.
A release agent, usually in either wax or liquid form, is applied to the chosen mold. This will allow the finished product to be removed cleanly from the mold. Resin—typically a 2-part polyester, vinyl or epoxy—is mixed with its hardener and applied to the surface. Sheets of fibreglass matting are laid into the mold, then more resin mixture is added using a brush or roller. The material must conform to the mold, and air must not be trapped between the fiberglass and the mold. Additional resin is applied and possibly additional sheets of fiberglass. Hand pressure, vacuum or rollers are used to make sure the resin saturates and fully wets all layers, and any air pockets are removed. The work must be done quickly enough to complete the job before the resin starts to cure, unless high temperature resins are used which will not cure until the part is warmed in an oven. In some cases, the work is covered with plastic sheets and vacuum is drawn on the work to remove air bubbles and press the fiberglass to the shape of the mold.
The fiberglass spray lay-up process is similar to the hand lay-up process but the difference comes from the application of the fiber and resin material to the mold. Spray-up is an open-molding composites fabrication process where resin and reinforcements are sprayed onto a mold. The resin and glass may be applied separately or simultaneously "chopped" in a combined stream from a chopper gun. Workers roll out the spray-up to compact the laminate. Wood, foam or other core material may then be added, and a secondary spray-up layer imbeds the core between the laminates. The part is then cured, cooled and removed from the reusable mold.
Pultrusion is a manufacturing method used to make strong, lightweight composite materials, in this case fiberglass. Fibers (the glass material) are pulled from spools through a device that coats them with a resin. They are then typically heat-treated and cut to length. Pultrusions can be made in a variety of shapes or cross-sections such as a W or S cross-section. The word pultrusion describes the method of moving the fibers through the machinery. It is pulled through using either a hand-over-hand method or a continuous-roller method. This is opposed to an extrusion, which would push the material through dies.
Chopped strand mat or CSM is a form of reinforcement used in fiberglass. It consists of glass fibers laid randomly across each other and held together by a binder.
It is typically processed using the hand lay-up technique, where sheets of material are placed in a mold and brushed with resin. Because the binder dissolves in resin, the material easily conforms to different shapes when wetted out. After the resin cures, the hardened product can be taken from the mold and finished.
Using chopped strand mat gives a fiberglass with isotropic in-plane material properties.
One notable feature of fiberglass is that the resins used are subject to contraction during the curing process. For polyester this contraction is often of the order of 5-6%, and for epoxy it can be much lower, about 2%.
When formed as part of fiberglass, because the fibers don't contract, the differential can create changes in the shape of the part during cure. Distortions will usually appear hours, days or weeks after the resin has set.
While this can be minimised by symmetric use of the fibers in the design, nevertheless internal stresses are created, and if these become too great, then cracks will form.
The National Toxicology Program ("NTP"), in June 2011, removed from its Report on Carcinogens all biosoluble glass wool used in home and building insulation and for non-insulation products. Similarly, California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment ("OEHHA"), in November 2011, published a modification to its Proposition 65 listing to include only "Glass wool fibers (inhalable and biopersistent)." The U.S. NTP and California's OEHHA action means that a cancer warning label for biosoluble fiber glass home and building insulation is no longer required under Federal or California law. All fiber glass wools commonly used for thermal and acoustical insulation were reclassified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer ("IARC") in October 2001 as Not Classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans (Group 3).
The European Union and Germany classify synthetic vitreous fibers as possibly or probably carcinogenic, but fibers can be exempt from this classification if they pass specific tests. Evidence for these classifications is primarily from studies on experimental animals and mechanisms of carcinogenesis. The glass wool epidemiology studies have been reviewed by a panel of international experts convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer ("IARC"). These experts concluded: "Epidemiologic studies published during the 15 years since the previous IARC monographs review of these fibres in 1988 provide no evidence of increased risks of lung cancer or mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the body cavities) from occupational exposures during the manufacture of these materials, and inadequate evidence overall of any cancer risk." Similar reviews of the epidemiology studies have been conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ("ATSDR"), the National Toxicology Program, the National Academy of Sciences and Harvard's Medical and Public Health Schools which reached the same conclusion as IARC that there is no evidence of increased risk from occupational exposure to glass wool fibers.
Fiberglass will irritate the eyes, skin, and the respiratory system. Potential symptoms include irritation of eyes, skin, nose, throat, dyspnea (breathing difficulty); sore throat, hoarseness and cough. Scientific evidence demonstrates that fiber glass is safe to manufacture, install and use when recommended work practices are followed to reduce temporary mechanical irritation.
Fiberglass is resistant to mold but growth can occur if fiberglass becomes wet and contaminated with organic material. Fiberglass insulation that has become wet should be inspected for evidence of residual moisture and contamination. Contaminated fiberglass insulation should be promptly removed.
While the resins are cured, styrene vapors are released. These are irritating to mucous membranes and respiratory tract. Therefore, the Hazardous Substances Ordinance in Germany dictate a maximum occupational exposure limit of 86 mg/m³. In certain concentrations may even occur a potentially explosive mixture. Further manufacture of GRP components (grinding, cutting, sawing) goes along with the emission of fine dusts and chips containing glass filaments as well as of tacky dust in substantial quantities. These affect people's health and functionality of machines and equipment. To ensure safety regulations are adhered to and efficiency can be sustained, the installation of effective extraction and filtration equipment is needed.