This article by Barry Berenberg was originally published in High Performance Composites magazine and later appeared at www.compositesworld.com.
Autoclave processing is the most common method used for curing thermoset prepregs. The curing of thermoset composites involves both mechanical and chemical processes. Mechanically, pressure is applied to remove trapped air and volatiles, and to consolidate the individual plies and fibers. Chemically, a crosslinking reaction must be initiated and taken to completion to form a rigid matrix. Crosslinking is most commonly initiated through the application of heat, though it also may be initiated by exposure to ultraviolet light, microwaves, or high-energy electrons (e-beam curing). In the autoclave process, high pressure and heat are applied to the part through the autoclave atmosphere, with a vacuum bag used to apply additional pressure and protect the laminate from the autoclave gases. The cure cycle for a specific application is usually determined empirically and, as a result, several cure cycles may be developed for a single material system, to account for differences in laminate thickness or to optimize particular properties in the cured part.
The typical autoclave cure cycle is a two-step process. First, vacuum and pressure are applied while the temperature is ramped up to an intermediate level and held there for a short period of time. The heat reduces the resin viscosity, allowing it to flow and making it easier for trapped air and volatiles to escape. The resin also begins wetting the fibers at this stage. In the second ramp up, the temperature is raised to the final cure temperature and held for a sufficient length of time to complete the Continue Reading