This page belongs to: Action Plan for Critical Technologies

Advanced composite materials

New materials created by combining two or more materials with different properties, without dissolving or blending them into each other. Advanced composite materials have strength, stiffness, or toughness greater than the base materials alone.

Key sectors

  • Construction
  • Defence and Defence Industry
  • Energy
  • Health
  • Manufacturing
  • Public Administration and Safety
  • Space
  • Transport and Logistics

Estimated impact on national interest

Economic Prosperity - Med
National Security - Med

Key Australian Government actions

Initiatives

  • The National Industry 4.0 Testlab in Composite Additive Manufacturing
  • Recycling and Clean Energy National Manufacturing Priority road map
  • Space National Manufacturing Priority road map
  • Defence National Manufacturing Priority road map
  • CSIRO Lab22

Regulations

  • Defence and Strategic Goods List 2021

Example outcomes

  • Cheap and rapid manufacture of ultrathin and customisable antennas
  • Stronger and lighter materials for aerospace and vehicle components and construction for improved performance and efficiency
  • Improved orthopaedic and prosthetic devices for patients
  • Safer storage and transport of hydrogen
  • Detection of toxic gasses using small, light‑weight and wearable sensing devices
  • Compact remote, emergency distress beacons suitable for campers or hikers
  • Increased durability and robustness for wearable personalised electronics
  • More efficient CO2 removal systems on submarines
  • Increased reduction of thermal signatures of military vehicles and uniforms to decrease detection/increase stealth
  • Composite structures for high temperature hypersonic applications for the aerospace and defence industries

Underpinning science

ANZ Standard Research Classification

  • Materials engineering
  • Macromolecular and materials chemistry
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Automotive engineering
  • Chemical engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Biomedical engineering

Example applications

Readiness Level – Now

  • Strong, lightweight structures (e.g. aerospace vehicles, racing cars, sports equipment)
  • Protective barriers (e.g. ballistic armour, heat shields, chemical barriers)
  • High temperature resistant materials (e.g. for jet engines, particle accelerators, nuclear reactors, rocket nozzles)
  • Industrial components (e.g. chemical storage tanks, pressure vessels, pumps)
  • High energy transfer components (e.g. gear boxes, thermal and electrical conductors, automotive disc brakes)
  • High endurance materials – wear resistant, corrosion resistant

Readiness Level – 2–5 years

  • Integration of sense and detect capabilities (i.e. antenna metasurfaces) into composite structures – without the added weight of conventional antennae
  • More resilient structures for use in space
  • Increased commercial use of composites for industrial machinery and surface transportation as costs decline

Readiness Level – Beyond 5 years

  • Long-endurance, high-speed flight
  • Gas separation capabilities (e.g. gas masks and removal of low-concentration gases in confined spaces such as airplanes, submarines and space stations)
  • Lighter, safer and more powerful batteries and fuel cells
  • Integration of energy storage capabilities (e.g. batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells) into composite structures - without the added weight of conventional storage systems
  • Transparent barriers with desirable properties (e.g. electrically or thermally insulating, high strength, high temperature resistance)
  • Structural materials for nuclear fusion reactors
  • New CO2 sequestration (or scrubbers) systems in submarines, or employment in respiratory canisters for adsorption of toxic chemicals, and various other circumstances

Australia's place in the world

Australia ranks 5th for research impact in this technology with Swinburne University of Technology ranked 7th globally. China has the highest research impact in this area and also has 3 institutions in the top 10 internationally—including the top institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences—and the United States is second. Eight of Australia’s research institutions are ranked in the top 50 internationally.

Germany has the highest venture capital (VC) investment ahead of the United States, while Australia is unranked. Internationally, VC investment has been decreasing by around 5% p.a. since 2016. Globally, the number of patents has been steady since 2015.

Given the sensitive nature of this technology much cutting-edge research is unlikely to be in the public domain, meaning this assessment may not be a true reflection of overall research capability. This assumption is also supported by the limited patent activity in this area. China has the greatest number of patents, more than triple that of 2nd ranked United States; Australia is ranked 18th.

Opportunities and risks

Advanced composite materials are an example of a niche, high‑technology, high value-add form of manufacturing with a range of applications, and which also enable many other critical technologies. The Australian composites market was valued at $480 million in 2020, and is expected to grow to over $10 billion by the end of 2030. These materials may prove important for Australia’s defence capabilities in aerospace and other operational requirements in equipment and vehicles. The importance of these materials is highlighted by their inclusion in each of the 2, 5 and 10 year success measures for research & development in the Space National Manufacturing Priority road map. Advanced composite materials are quickly becoming an important part of the clean energy and manufacturing sectors, and will play a role in energy transition; for example, new wind turbine blades, materials to reduce the weight of advanced vehicles and more efficient hydrogen storage.

Advanced composite materials are not without their drawbacks. Some materials require high levels of investment and expertise to produce. For example, Borophene—which can be used in next generation electronic devices, superior battery electrodes and safer hydrogen storage capabilities—is difficult and expensive to produce. Metal organic frameworks—which can be used in gas masks and removal of low‑concentration gases in confined spaces—have issues with their stability, working capacity and scalability. Ongoing investment and effort is required to develop efficient and cost-effective production methods for these materials is essential in order to realise their potential benefits.

Applications for advanced composite materials can be very diverse and go beyond the original use they were designed for; this is often not obvious to inventors or manufacturers. These materials thus represent a potential espionage target, especially given their enabling capabilities for various military and security applications. Given Australia’s relative strength in this area, it is a risk that must be carefully managed.

Research impact (RI)

China has the highest research impact in this area, ahead of the United States. Australia is ranked 5th. Total volume of published research has been increasing at 7% p.a. over the 5 year period 2016–2020, with 21% of research involving international collaboration.

  1. China - 2301
  2. USA - 1708
  3. India - 806
  4. UK - 454
  5. Australia - 448

The research impact provides an indication of the productivity of a country or institution. Here, productivity was assumed to be represented by the volume of publications (i.e. scholarly output) as an indicator of the resources & facilities, and the level of interest in the publications as an indicator of quality.

VC investment

Germany has the highest amount of VC investment in advanced composite materials, ahead of the United States and China. Globally, investment in this area has been declining at around 5% p.a. since 2016. Australia is unranked.

  1. Germany
  2. USA
  3. China
  4. UK
  5. Canada
  • (unranked) Australia

Data from Crunchbase. The Crunchbase database provides a partial view of the global VC landscape. However the quantity, quality and richness of the data are considered to be statistically significant, and indicative of global trends.

Patents - international

The number of patents being lodged annually in this field has been steady since 2015. Most patents in this field were filed by applicants or inventors from China. Australia is ranked 18th.

  1. China - 8646
  2. USA - 2686
  3. Japan - 1440
  4. Germany - 832
  5. Taiwan - 689
  1. Australia - 49

Research institutions - international

The top 10 international institutions for advanced composite materials are relatively diverse. China has 3 of the top 10, including the top ranked institution. Other countries with institutions in the top 10 include Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Australia and the United States.

Rank Top International Institution Research Impact
1 Chinese Academy of Sciences | China 378
2 University of Sidi-Bel-Abbès | Algeria 250
3 King Abdulaziz University | Saudi Arabia 248
4 National University of Singapore | Singapore 230
5 Harbin Institute of Technology | China 206
6 University of Mascara | Algeria 179
7 Swinburne University of Technology | Australia 178
8 Zhejiang University | China 171
9 University of Tennessee, Knoxville | United States 153
10 NASA Langley Research Center | United States 143

Research institutions - Australia

Within Australia, Swinburne University of Technology has the highest research impact and is ranked 7th internationally. The top 8 Australian institutions are in the top 50 internationally.

Rank Top Australian Institution Research Impact
1 Swinburne University of Technology 178
2 University of Sydney 103
3 Monash University 90
4 University of New South Wales 52
5 Deakin University 46
6 University of Wollongong 41
7 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University 39
8 Australian National University 39
9 Queensland University of Technology 30
10 Defence Science & Technology Group 6

Patents - Australia

Top 5 Australian Patent Applicants Patent Families
Carbon Revolution 3
Boral IP Holdings 2

A number of Australian businesses have one patent family recorded in this technology area

Patents filed by Australian businesses, 2015–2019.