An Introduction to Composite Materials

We were invited to a Physics and Chemistry seminar called: Building a Better Bike on Trent University Campus with expert Richard Morgan, a professional engineer in the Peterborough region.


Because bikes were introduced in the late 19th century in Europe, the materials used to build them has drastically changed over time.

Bikes are used for many purposes, including:

  • Recreation
  • Travel
  • Fitness and
  • Courier services.

This talk was an introduction to advanced composite materials and their use as structural materials in product design.

We reviewed what composite materials are, why they are used and what advantages and disadvantages they have compared to typical metallic materials when building a bicycle. 

We went into detail about how composite materials are made and the complexities of designing with them, focusing specifically on their use in bicycle design as an example.

We learned about structural materials and their properties, such as;

  1. Strength – how much force a material can be subject to before it fails
  2. Density – how much material weights for a given volume
  3. Stiffness – how a material deflects under a given force

Some common material used to build a bicycle include: steel, aluminum, and plastics.

Of particular interest was the new material CARBON FIBRE to build bicycles.

Carbon fibre has a very high stiffness to weight ration and a high strength to weight ratio – meaning it is a very light material and can be easily molded. 


Auto and plane makers are using the material to make lighter and more efficient vehicles air crafts.

Because the material is so light, air crafts and vehicles require less fuel to move because of the lighter materials. Carbon fibre is also used to make wind turbines!

However, no material is perfect. Unfortunately, carbon fibre is energy intensive to produce and difficult to recycle. 

But although carbon fibre might create waste in the short term, companies are racing to solve these problems by diverting carbon fibre from landfills.

This could help reuse this important material and use recycled carbon fibres in cars, bikes and dozens of other applications – which saves money on producing the virgin material .

It was an eye-opening and informative topic.

As more and more bikes, planes, cars, and wind turbines begin to manufacture with carbon fibre, it is important to plan for the end-of-life of a product.

What comes as a pro in some areas, may be a con in others!

We need an interdisciplinary approach to finding environmental solutions – which means many overlaps between Trent University departments – like Environmental Sciences and Physics / Chemistry!



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