Putting Brains In Plane Wings

PLASTICS REINFORCED WITH CARBON FIBERS ARE LIGHT and durable--very desirable if you are building an aircraft wing or fuselage. But the virtues of these composites go beyond weight and strength, says Deborah Chung, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The composites could also someday be fabricated into giant arrays of solar cells, temperature sensors, and other semiconductor devices.

First, Chung says, the carbon fibers must be "doped" with chemicals that boost electrical conductivity. Then, by alternating layers of carbon fibers with layers of insulating material, engineers could create airplane wings or automobile body panels that would function as solar arrays, converting sunlight to electricity and storing it.

Chung's concept, presented at the International Symposium on Smart Structures and Materials in San Diego earlier this month, is a radical departure from conventional approaches, which embed tiny electronic or optical devices in the "smart" material. Here, says Chung, "we can use the structural materials themselves as the electronics." This approach would preserve the integrity of the materials and eliminate the need for expensive embedded chips.