The Composites Perspectives Series

Last year the Bristol Composites Institute launched “Composites Perspectives”, a series of talks each focusing on different topics and including two composite-expert speakers. Since June 2022, the BCI has hosted three Composite Perspectives events, with the next one arranged for 11 July 2023 (details on how to register will be released soon).

The first Composites Perspectives event took place on 14 June 2022 and saw Professor Richard Oldfield (Chief Executive, UK National Composites Centre and Honorary Industrial Professor, University of Bristol) and Professor Pascal Hubert (Werner Graupe Chair on Sustainable Composites Manufacturing and Director at the Research Center for High Performance Polymer and Composite Systems, McGill University, Canada) discuss “Composites Role in Delivering Net Zero” and “Solutions for Zero Waste Composite Prepreg Processing”, respectively.

These talks became part of a wider ‘Sustainable Composites’ programme, and in September 2022 guest speaker Dr. Tia Benson-Tolle (Director, Advanced Materials and Sustainability, Boeing Commercial Aircraft) covered the importance of “Circularity and Recycling” within sustainable composites, and Professor Ian Hamerton (NCC Professor of Polymers and Sustainable Composites, University of Bristol) discussed the “High Performance Discontinuous Fibre technology (HiPerDiF)”.

The most recent event, which took place on 14 March 2023,  focused on Transformation in Engineering, with talks from Professor Mike Hinton, Consultant in Research and Technology Partnerships, High Value Manufacturing Catapult (“Engineering Transformation”) and Professor Ole Thomsen, Co-Director of Bristol Composites Institute and NCC Chair in Composites Design and Manufacture (“Towards virtual validation of composites structures – rethinking the testing pyramid approach”).

You can read about the previous events here and recordings of each session are available to view on the BCI Youtube Channel.

We look forward to inviting you to our future Composites Perspectives events.

BCI / NCC Joint Annual Conference, 10 November 2022

Last November, the Bristol Composites Institute and National Composites Centre presented the 2022 BCI NCC Joint Annual Conference, which addressed some of the key engineering challenges of our time, particularly focusing on how composites will ensure a net zero future for the UK.

The conference showcased the cross-TRL work we conduct together and how we can work in partnership with industry to advance and optimise their technology developments and fast-track innovation.

The morning session included updates from the NCC and BCI on their work in Sustainability, Hydrogen and Digital and the afternoon session focused on transitional research and how the gap between the technology readiness levels can be bridged. There was also a keynote presentation from Kate Barnard (WhatBox – Consultants facilitating mutually beneficial partnerships ( which was followed by a panel session chaired by Michele Barbour and featured Matt Scott, Valeska Ting, Evangelos Zympeloudis, Kate Robson-Brown and Musty Rampuri and sparked plenty of thoughtful discussions between guests and speakers.

The conference, which was held at the NCC in Emersons Green, Bristol, welcomed over 60 people in-person, and had an additional 40 online attendees. Details of the 2023 joint conference will be released later in the year.

Guests listening to a presentation at the conference Guests listening to a presentation at the conference

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship in Physical Sciences

The EPSRC recently awarded a large grant (£1.6m) to Professor Steve Eichhorn in the Bristol Composites Institute for a fellowship on “Realising Functional Cellulosic Bio-based Composites”. Fellowships are schemes that allow academics at all levels to focus on research, to make a difference in a field. This fellowship is slightly different, as it includes Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I). The technical work of the fellowship will focus on biobased and sustainable composites using cellulose towards functional materials. The ED&I aspect of the work will aim to improve the experiences and inclusion of Black students and staff.

ED&I in Engineering

Recent studies have highlighted that fewer than 1% of UK university professors are Black, with previous research showing that there are only 25 Black female professors in the UK.

“For many years during my career, I had been involved in ED&I work. It dawned on me that as a white male within academia not only was I the norm, but I also possessed a lot of privilege that had enabled my career. I also came to realise that I am also part of the problem, with most decision making and shaping of the culture in universities being directed by people who look like me.

The aim of this fellowship is to de-centre that approach, but to also engage more people of all ethnicities to tackle the problem of a lack ED&I of Black and Black heritage staff and students in STEM”, Professor Eichhorn reflects.

For the last 20 years, Professor Eichhorn has been researching the structure-property relationships of cellulose. His research groups have always been diverse, but he has recently realised that certain aspects could still be improved.

“My group over the years has included a wide range of people, with a very good gender balance, but also diverse ethnic, religious, class and cultural backgrounds. This has been a strength to the work we have produced over the last two decades. However, it is evident that people of Black and Black heritage have not been well represented in my group. This is something I have reflected on. This ED&I fellowship gave me a unique opportunity to address this issue and be part of a process of change.”

Cellulosic Bio-based Composites

George Washington Carver (c. 1864 – 1943)

There is a worldwide transition from the use of oil-based to more sustainable materials. This transition is happening due to dwindling oil stocks and a realisation that current levels of the use of this resource are no longer sustainable. However, this is not a new development, as pioneers such as George Washington Carver, working with Henry Ford, developed sustainable and biobased composites in the 1930s. We know from their work that sustainable sources for materials exist in the form of cellulose from plants. This material is a very versatile polymer and is in fact the most utilised material worldwide.

Nature makes use of cellulose to good effect. Being intrinsically strong and stiff means that cellulose fibres, per weight, can compete mechanically with most synthetic alternatives such as glass. In nature’s most prevalent natural composite – wood – cellulose forms the basis of its outstanding structural performance.

All our attempts to replicate the composite performance of wood and plants have fallen short, and this fellowship seeks to address these issues, while also using the intrinsic properties of plant fibres and wood themselves.

Fellowship Research Team

two women in white lab coats in a laboratory smiling at the camera
Dr Anita Etale (left) and Dr Amaka Onyianta (right) in the Bristol Composites Institute research laboratories.

After a search for the right applicants for postdoctoral positions, we were delighted to welcome two researchers – Dr Anita Etale and Dr Amaka Onyianta – with outstanding track records in cellulose research and the lived experience and passion to address ED&I with respect to Black and Black heritage staff and students. They combine these two passions and expertise and are already making an impact in the field.

“I am very glad to be part of this fellowship. This is a rare fellowship that combines my passion for making sustainable materials from nature’s most abundant polymer alongside the opportunity to engage in various ED&I projects that would empower Black and Black heritage staff and students in Bristol and hopefully, the UK at large”, Dr Amaka Onyianta says.

“I believe that representation is key to increasing diversity among the next generation of engineers. Being part of this fellowship gives me the opportunity to play my part in creating a future where ideas are enriched by varied experiences and approaches, and where people have opportunities to pursue the careers they are passionate about, and to contribute solutions to present and future global challenges”, Dr Anita Etale adds.

Find out more

Read more about this fellowship.

For more information, contact Dr Amaka Onyianta, Dr Anita Etale, or Professor Steve Eichhorn.

SABRE – Novel blade technologies greatly improve helicopter efficiency

We interviewed the lead investigator of the SABRE projectDr. Benjamin Woods.

What is the SABRE project?

SABRE stands for ‘Shape Adaptive Blades for Rotorcraft Efficiency’. The four-year, €6 million, EU-funded project brings together a consortium of six research institutions from across Europe to develop ground-breaking new helicopter blade designs capable of changing shape in real-time to reduce noise, fuel burn and CO2 emissions.

Can you tell us what motivated this work?

In a word, sustainability. Reducing emissions from current flying technology is imperative if we want a credible chance to tackle climate change, hence developing new technologies that are more efficient and drastically reduce fuel burn is key to becoming more sustainable. 

How are you proposing to achieve better flying efficiency for helicopters?

yellow helicopter on the ground

Current designs for helicopter blades are rife with inefficiency.  The problem with helicopters is that blades will experience cyclic changes in airflow as they rotate. These differences in airflow velocity are detrimental to the performance of the rotor. This is a well-known issue and current rotor designs can change the overall pitch (orientation) of each blade as it spins around the helicopter to partially mitigate this issue. Unfortunately, the pitching solution is not ideal as it pitches the whole blade.  

Instead, we are proposing to develop different morphing concepts that will enable us to quickly and accurately control the shape of each blade and hence the airflow, during each rotation.  

What are these morphing concepts?

There are many key design parameters that should be considered when creating rotor blades. For example, you should ask ‘how much curvature is there in the aerofoil?’, ‘how does the length of the aerofoils vary over the blade?’, ‘how much twist is there in the blade?’. These are the types of features that engineers play with to optimise rotorcraft performance, with compromises being required due to the wide range of operating conditions. Those are the things that we would love to be able to change – but in real-time – to allow us to fully respond to the different operating conditions without the need to compromise. We are looking at exactly those factors. 

Six promising morphing blade concepts are being investigated. Two concepts can actively change the blade twist. Another two can actively change the aerofoil curvature (camber). One concept can increase the length of the aerofoil, and the last concept can alter the blade dynamic response.

Active camber, active chord, active tendons. active twist, and negative stiffness passive energy balancing.
Morphing concepts investigated by SABRE

What have you found out so far?

Using one concept at a time resulted in a fuel burn reduction of up to 5%, but when we looked at multiple concepts in different parts of each blade to attack different elements of physics, that’s when we saw significant reductions of up to 11%. There is certainly scope for further reductions, and with the right combination of technologies, fuel burn could be reduced by as much as 20%. 

What are your next steps?

It will be a while before this technology becomes mainstream. Development times of up to 30 years are “completely standard” for novel technologies in civil aerospace because the safety requirements are so rigorous. However, SABRE’s research could have applications elsewhere – more specifically, with renewable wind energy. This will likely be part of my next investigation.

Find out more

For more information, visit the SABRE Project website.