One way to make composite aircraft lighter: stop riveting and start bonding

Provided it’s manufactured and applied correctly, adhesive bonding (using glue for non-material scientists) is a safe and efficient way to join aircraft parts together. “Adhesive bonding has been used for several years instead of or together with rivets in conventional metal aircraft. But now that aircraft fuselages are increasingly made from composites we need to know more about how we can use adhesive bonding to join composite parts optimally."

"At the moment we apply similar design methodologies used up to now in metal bonding to adhesively bond the new material composites. This penalizes significantly the weight saving potential of composites”, says  structural joints researcher Sofia Teixeira de Freitas of the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, TU Delft. ”The design of bonded joints has to be re-invented in order to efficiently  join composites, both in term of shape and in terms of material properties optimisation (fibre direction and layup).”  In July Teixeira de Freitas was awarded a NWO Veni-grant. The grant gives her the opportunity to come up with a new design methodology with which the aircraft industry can determine the optimal properties of the composite material and the optimal geometry to join the different aircraft parts together safely and efficiently.

Drilling holes and fitting rivets 

Since about the time Boeing introduced the Dreamliner, aircraft manufacturers have predominantly used carbon fibre composite materials for parts of aircraft as a light and strong replacement of aluminium. On aircraft leaving the production lines now, about half of the materials used are composites.  It’s understandable that composites are popular with  the manufacturers: lighter aircraft have lower fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions for example.  

Aircraft consist of many small parts that have to be joined together. In  traditional aluminium-made aircraft fasteners such as rivets were used to do this. Teixeira de Freitas: “We have only slightly adapted the old joining methods used for aluminium to fit modern airplanes that are made from both aluminium and composites. Basically, we still drill holes and fit rivets. This is far from optimal. Drilling holes cuts the carbon fibres of the composite and significantly destroys their load bearing characteristics. To compensate that more material is used, which makes the airplanes heavier again.”  

Images above: Joints between the wing skin and the stiffener, aircraft wing

Image above: zooming in on the adhesive bond solution

Adhesive bonding – glue

Using just adhesive bonding could solve this issue, but much more knowledge is needed about the ’glue’s’ behaviour in the longer term and we need to know better how to shape the composite’s fibres and what geometry is needed to connect the two parts together. Teixeira de Freitas: “Composites are not like metal that has fixed properties. The fibres that make up the composite can be placed in different directions, making it possible to adjust material properties. We need to find out how to create optimal properties to build a stronger and safer adhesive joint. Also we need to know what the optimal geometry is of connecting the two parts together, whether it’s linking composites together or whether it’s connecting composite and metals.” Teixeira de Freitas faces an interesting scientific challenge: “Composites already exist as highly efficient materials, but they need to be optimised to become very efficient structures as well. What we need to do is scale up to larger structures. Adhesive bonding plays a pivotal role in this”.

Is the future made of glued composites?

Will all aircraft – or any other metal structure – consist of bonded composite parts in the future? Teixeira de Freitas believes in the future every part of a structure will be made from the best material tailored to its purpose and that new solutions will be found for joining these together safely and efficiently: “Interfaces in hybrid structures will become increasingly important. In the future we will need joints that do not reduce the performance of material parts. Adhesive bonding is a very promising candidate for this, but other options are also researched (for example by my colleagues at the faculty), such as welding plastics or even using a type of Velcro.”  


The Innovational Research Incentives Scheme Veni is a grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for researchers who have recently obtained their PhD. It allows them to conduct independent research and develop their ideas for a period of three years. The researchers receive a maximum of 250.000 Euros. Teixeira de Freitas: “I am planning to use the grant mostly to collaborate with experts at other universities and build bridges between disciplines.”

Offshore industry

This summer Teixeira de Freitas received another piece of good news: she – and her colleagues in a broader consortium – also received a grant of  500.000 Euro from the Top Sector High Tech Systems and Materials for research on using composites in the offshore and maritime industry.

Sofia  Teixeira de Freitas

Sofia Teixeira de Freitas is a civil engineer with a Master’s degree from the University of Lisbon in Portugal. In her PhD at the faculty of Civil Engineering at TU Delft shedeveloped adhesive bonding technology for reinforcing steel bridges. She currently holds the position of Assistant Professor in the department of Aerospace Structures and Materials at the faculty of Aerospace Engineering at TU Delft.

Sofia: “My multi-engineering background gives me a broader perspective, an overview of disciplines which I find very useful. What really motivates me? To expand my knowledge and pass it on to new generations.”


The banner photo pictures the composites laboratory at TU Delft

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