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The structural research that’s taking wing

Professor Brian Falzon plays a pivotal role in engineering at Queen’s. As the Royal Academy of Engineering/Bombardier Chair in Aerospace Composites he unites the skills of the commercial aerospace community with those of the University.

The result – research that will have a major impact on future aircraft design. Brian says, ‘My research has to do with advanced  composites, mainly geared towards lightweight aircraft structures. How do we make them lighter and how do we reduce the cost of  development?’
The answer is carbon fibre. The latest generation of passenger aircraft, the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, are  predominantly made of it and Bombardier have taken the decision to make the wings of their C series out of carbon fibre.
‘Even  though we’ve been using bits of carbon fibre on passenger aircraft for about 40 years, this is a huge leap forward. And of course  what that brings is a lot of extensive experimental testing. A large part of my research is about actually trying to reduce physical  testing by replacing it with simulation – virtual testing and design.’
What is leading the drive to make structures lighter is an  energy issue – reducing our environmental footprint. It is an objective that aligns perfectly with the manufacturers’ desire to lower operating costs.
Head of School Brian Falzon
Brian joined Queen’s in January 2013 from Monash University in Melbourne. Previously he had been at Imperial  College London for 12 years and before that he studied at the University of Sydney. His appointment has been hailed by Bombardier as  the pinnacle of their involvement with academia in the UK.
‘The opportunity came at a time when, looking at Europe from Australia  and despite the financial woes Europe was going through, I felt there was still a commitment from the UK Government to  manufacturing,…we have an established track record of engaging with industry and developing research collaborations which facilitate innovation. especially the aircraft industry.
‘What appealed to me was an environment of industry-driven research. That’s what  excites me – plus the fact that Queen’s has a fantastic reputation for engineering and for being entrepreneurial.’
Of the modelling  approach, Brian says, ‘We want to be able to predict with a good deal of confidence how the structure is going to behave under loading. When will it fail and how? So there are questions such as – do you start at the micro scale or at a slightly larger one?  And of course the other thing about carbon fibre composites is that there are various forms from which you can create your  structure. You’re almost designing the material while you’re designing the structure.’
Brian is also using nanotechnology,  developing carbon nanotube-enhanced composite structures ‘that will give us real multifunctionality – a new material which will give  you increased toughness, increased lightning strike protection and perhaps even a self-monitoring structure so that it will tell you  if there’s a problem developing. This is really exciting.
‘As academics involved in composites research at Queen’s, we have an  established track record of engaging with industry and developing research collaborations which facilitate innovation.’
With this  demand will come the need for new knowledge and skills. ‘I think the composites expertise we have here is unparalleled. One of the  distinguishing features of Queen’s is that the academic staff have a lot of substantial links with industry. A lot of them have  worked for Bombardier and other companies as professional engineers. They’re people who really understand industry and its needs.’