FRP: Here's how the super material is shaping our future

There's nothing quite like the 60s when it comes to mainstream science fiction - Arthur C Clarke was inventing satellites (as fiction, which became a fact), Isaac Asimov was drawing up the 3 laws of robotics, and Star Trek was on TV. The last 20 years, however, seem to have been all about creating reality, from what was previously fiction: cell phones, 3D printers, hoverbikes, facial recognition... even Iron Man's suit is a reality!

What makes Iron Man's suit possible isn't iron of course, but new materials that are lighter, stronger and much more flexible. Ditto the latest must-have phones - made of 'glass' that doesn't even crack when dropped from a height of 10 feet. The time for new materials is definitely here; be it in consumer electronics, space, industry or infrastructure.

In a sort of Gold Rush for researchers, R&D labs across the world have been exploring processes that yield materials that are stronger, yet lighter; quick to produce; yet more durable; and of course, economically and environmentally viable. One of the frontrunners in this race has been Fibre Reinforced Polymer Composites (FRP). Simply put, this material is stronger and lighter than metals, non-corrosive, and quick to produce. Plus, it is increasingly recyclable! It seemed perfect.

Fig: India's first ever FRP based foot overbridge set up in Jamshedpur,2019

But while it was first created in the 1930s, it took 40 years for the science to mature into a stable, reliable product. Since the 1970s, it’s been widely used in Aerospace and Automotive industries, with new applications in heavy industry and infrastructure following shortly.

Not surprisingly, Tata Steel is one of the first large Indian companies to enter into this arena. By leveraging their intimate know-how of the steel market, they know firsthand where the needs are better served by FRP than steel. By investing heavily into product development and technology, not only are they able to better identify and meet opportunities in markets that are steel adjacent, but they’re also providing solutions.

Dr. Debashish Bhattacharjee, VP, Technology and New Materials Business, Tata Steel says, “Tata Steel has taken a disruptive leap. We are creating a business in a new structural material - FRP composites - which is future ready. It is lightweight, corrosion resistant, low maintenance, recyclable and has low CO2 footprint. We are creating tomorrow today!”

It is this sort of future-facing and innovative thinking that puts them in the same league with their competitors in the international space. Currently, Tata Steel is one of the Indian companies to leverage FRPs for the creation of High-Pressure Vessels in the water filtration industry. The corrosion resistant properties of these vessels make them ideal - especially when coupled with their durability, low maintenance requirements, and high-quality output.

Similarly, Tata Steel has also forayed into the production of FRP bridges that are ideal for canals, foot over bridges in cities and industrial environments. The bridges are lightweight, easy to manufacture and install, and priced competitively. FRP pipes are being used underground and over-ground to carry corrosive liquids, and being lightweight, these pipes can be manufactured in longer lengths - which means a lesser number of joints and fewer leakages.

There’s also an array of smart city products like smart street light poles that have sensors to gather weather, pollution, and traffic-related data. Plus, being lightweight and easy to install, these are great solutions for hilly and hard to reach areas where transport can make traditional streetlight poles a challenge. The advantage of being able to mould FRP into any sort of shape means FRP can also be used for smart street furniture (bus stops, benches, fences) and installations. The corrosion resistant properties mean that these can be used even in coastal areas, where the rate of corrosion is high.

One of the most visible applications of this material is in railway interiors. If you’ve noticed that the interiors of our trains now resemble the interiors of airplanes, you know why! The material’s smooth finish and durability means that overall, the government spends far less money on replacements - even with rough use!

Tata Steel is focused on Railways, Automotive, Industrial goods, and Infrastructure as a way forward for FRP. It will endeavour to provide solutions to problems related to corrosion, maintenance and weight while ensuring superior aesthetics at competitive prices. The effort to bring new products and solutions to customers is incessant.

The field is ripe, and we’re confident that the next big breakthrough technology will emerge from Indian shores.

- In collaboration with Firstpost

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