'Self-healing' materials set to transform hypersonic travel

C3HARME will develop composites that can be used in two different applications for civilian rockets

The University of Birmingham is working as part of a group of 12 partners from six European countries on an EU-funded collaborative research project which aims to design, manufacture and test a new generation of materials able to withstand the harsh conditions of aerospace.

The project, known as C3HARME, has been funded as part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

During launch and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere materials used in space vehicles need to survive some very intense temperatures, typically around 2500oC). The rocket motors also need to be able to withstand very fast moving gases.

Traditionally, materials have suffered from ablation, a process whereby material erodes away. By contrast, the new materials being developed by C3HARME will be resistant to erosion.

Frederic Monteverde, a researcher on the C3HARME project based at the Italian National Research Council, described the new materials as being ‘self-healing’ and ‘able to completely or partially repair damage inflicted on them.’

C3HARME will develop composites that can be used in two different applications for civilian rockets: thermal protection systems for wing leading edges and nozzles for the rocket motor. The composites are based on carbon fibres protected by zirconium diboride, an ultra-high temperature ceramic material.

 The project links universities with end users (including Airbus), as well as small and large companies capable of manufacturing the final materials and components ready for market.

The project holds exciting possibilities for enabling rockets to undergo several missions, helping to reduce manufacturing costs. With the advent of hypersonic flights, it also raises the potential of flights from Europe to Australia being reduced to a couple of hours.

The role of Birmingham's researchers from the School of Metallurgy and Materials is to use a process known as chemical vapour infiltration to make the composites. Conventionally, this process yields very high quality materials but the process is extremely slow, taking two to three months to make parts. The University is making good progress towards reducing the time required to three to four days; this should allow the resulting composites to be much cheaper and so affordable for these applications.

Find out the latest updates on the project via the latest C3HARME newsletter:

C3HARME newsletter - April 2018 (pdf)