Logo: University of Southern California


August 02, 2013 —
Chemical Engineering Chair Steven Nutt and team aim to make composite materials stronger and cheaper.
February 26, 2013 —
Chemical Engineering Chair Steven Nutt

USC Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences Chair Steven Nutt and his team recently received a prestigious research grant from the G-8 economic group to explore ways to make composite materials more efficiently and sustainably.

USC received $450,000 over three years for research that promotes reducing waste and saving energy during the composite manufacturing process. Other international team members collaborating with USC are McGill University in Canada, Bristol University in the United Kingdom, and Technical University of Munich in Germany, which each received $350,000. The G-8 consists of the world’s largest economies, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States.

“We need to be more efficient with our use of materials and our manufacturing processes so we waste less,” said Nutt, whose work with composites spans 30 years. “That means changing the processes so there is less waste, but also capturing the waste to use in other products.”

The current process of manufacturing composites includes laying down ribbons of fiber-tape on the mold in specific directions to impart stiffness adn strength and bond the tapes together. The parts are then baked in a large pressurized oven, called an autoclave, to harden or cure the tape. Up to 40% of the tape used in this process is discarded as waste, which collects in landfills. Autoclaves are also inefficient because they consume large amounts of nitrogen gas. Professor Nutt and his team are examining less energy intensive alternatives to autoclaves and ways to recycle the tape.

Nutt began his research project in 2008 with a three-year grant from Airbus. The G-8 award has allowed him to expand his team and resources.

Composite materials, much lighter than metals, are primarily used in aerospace and sporting equipment where lightweight material means better performance and lower fuel costs. As the cost of composite materials drops, composites may be used in other future practical applications, including cars, boats, infrastructure and power lines.

Nutt hopes his work expands the use of composites into such applications.

“Our research will translate not only to reduced manufacturing costs and energy consumption, but also to improved fuel efficiencies and reduced pollutants from airplanes and automobiles,” Nutt said. “Developing more sustainable alternatives to current manufacturing processes is important if we are to minimize environmental impact and ensure that our planet is at least as healthy for future generations as it has been for us.”