inside Demanding Environments

X-ray imaging helping intelligent design of materials for safer aircraft.

X-ray imaging is being used to improve the design of aerospace composite materials, ultimately making air travel safer. Our team from the Manchester X-ray Imaging Facility (MXIF) looked at the effect of impacts on composite panels such as those that make up the new Airbus and Boeing aircraft used by airlines around the world.

The theories that tell us how damage occurs to metal panels following an impact are well established. But how fibre composite materials are affected by similar kinds of impact is less understood. Our work in this area is leading the way in UK advanced materials manufacturing and our achievements have been honoured with a Queen’s Anniversary Prize.

Such impacts might occur from a spanner being accidently dropped onto a panel during routine maintenance, or from the high velocity impacts that can happen during flight through a hailstorm.

We compared the architecture of both conventional 2D laminated and novel 3D woven composite materials. Two-dimensional composites are made up of flat sheets each containing fibres in a single orientation, bound together by glue. This makes them incredibly strong, but the layers are prone to delaminate on impact, compared to 3D materials that include interwoven carbon fibres to hold the composite together.

We have used X-ray to see the damage caused by impact. These impacts can be barely visible to the naked eye because the material shows little damage on the surface. However, this could be masking more serious problems underneath.

The use of X-ray technology is invaluable because it allows researchers to see below the surface in 3D to reveal what is really happening to the composite fabric following an impact. At Manchester we are the forefront of developing new techniques in 3D imaging and we host one of the most extensive X-ray computer tomography (CT) imaging facilities in the world. This allows our team to collect 3D images for precise analysis. And because X-ray imaging is not destructive, it means researchers can track how damage may develop over time if left untreated. The cluster of material manufacturers based near the National Composites Certification and Evaluation Facility in Manchester have allowed us to conduct research hand in hand with industrial partners. This means the findings of our research can be acted upon quickly, making air transport safer for everyone.


B. Yu, J. Stein, F. Leonard, P.J. Withers, and C. Soutis. Progressive fatigue damage in 3D modified layer-to-layer woven composites characterised by X-ray tomography. In 16th European Conference on Composite Materials; 22 Jun 2014-26 Jun 2014; Sevilla Spain. 2014.