School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
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.
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.’