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Post Mechanical Failure Fire Damage Characterization of Graphite/Epoxy Composites



Fire damage involving mechanically failed composite aircraft structures can dramatically alter their exposed surface characteristics in ways that inhibit fire forensic analyses. In this work, the effects of fire exposure on mechanically failed Cytec T40- 800/Cycom® 5215 graphite/epoxy composites were examined. Coupon level vertical fire tests were performed on mechanically failed unnotched compression and in-plane shear graphite/epoxy specimens. The fire damage was characterized by visual inspection and scanning electron microscopy. The fire damage development in the specimens involved a concurrent and sequential interaction between multiple physical, chemical, and thermal processes. This damage included melt dripping, matrix decomposition, char, soot, matrix cracking, delamination, and residual thickness increases due to explosive outgassing. The composite thermal degradation due to heat conduction, combustion, and/or thermal deformation was significantly affected by the specimen layup, ply orientation relative to the heat source, and the fracture surface morphology. Plies burned with fibers oriented parallel to the flame axis conducted heat into the interior of the composite. This resulted in melt dripping, internal pockets of matrix decomposition, and surface char deposition that, in some cases, completely obscured pertinent aspects of fiber fracture surface morphology. In contrast, plies burned with fibers oriented perpendicular to the flame axis acted like a thermal protection layer that impeded (slowed) heat transfer to the specimen’s interior. Furthermore, the thermal damage development was influenced by the specimen layup and the total available free surface area created during mechanical failure. Specimens with more free surface area promoted better airflow and oxygen availability for combustion and sustained far more thermal degradation for given fire exposure. Key fractographic features in exposed fiber bundles were destroyed due to severe thermal oxidation and thinning. A thorough understanding of these coupon-level fire tests represents a critical first step in developing a coherent strategy for the Federal Aviation Authority post-crash forensic analysis of composite aircraft structures.


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