A composite is commonly defined as a combination of two or more distinct materials, each of which retains its own distinctive properties, to create a new material with properties that cannot be achieved by any of the components acting alone. Using this definition, it can be determined that a wide range of engineering materials fall into this category. For example, concrete is a composite because it is a mixture of Portland cement and aggregate. Fiberglass sheet is a composite since it is made of glass fibers imbedded in a polymer.
Composite materials are said to have two phases. The reinforcing phase is the fibers, sheets, or particles that are embedded in the matrix phase. The reinforcing material and the matrix material can be metal, ceramic, or polymer. Typically, reinforcing materials are strong with low densities while the matrix is usually a ductile, or tough, material.
Some of the common classifications of composites are:
- Reinforced plastics
- Metal-matrix composites
- Ceramic-matrix composites
- Sandwich structures
Composite materials can take many forms but they can be separated into three categories based on the strengthening mechanism. These categories are dispersion strengthened, particle reinforced and fiber reinforced. Dispersion strengthened composites have a fine distribution of secondary particles in the matrix of the material. These particles impede the mechanisms that allow a material to deform. (These mechanisms include dislocation movement and slip, which will be discussed later). Many metal-matrix composites would fall into the dispersion strengthened composite category. Particle reinforced composites have a large volume fraction of particle dispersed in the matrix and the load is shared by the particles and the matrix. Most commercial ceramics and many filled polymers are particle-reinforced composites. In fiber-reinforced composites, the fiber is the primary load-bearing component. Fiberglass and carbon fiber composites are examples of fiber-reinforced composites.
If the composite is designed and fabricated correctly, it combines the strength of the reinforcement with the toughness of the matrix to achieve a combination of desirable properties not available in any single conventional material. Some composites also offer the advantage of being tailorable so that properties, such as strength and stiffness, can easily be changed by changing amount or orientation of the reinforcement material. The downside is that such composites are often more expensive than conventional materials.