Professor Luigi Nicolais, Founder and President of Materias

JEC Composites Magazine spoke to Luigi Nicolais about the development and growth of the global composite materials industry he had the privilege to witness over the course of his long career.

Professor Luigi Nicolais, Founder and President of Materias

3 minutes, 40 secondes

Luigi Nicolais, Professor Emeritus of Polymer Technology and Materials Science and Technology at the Federico II University of Naples, is currently president of Materias, a company that he founded in 2016 to focus on research enhancement. A career that, since 1969, has enabled him to witness the birth and development of the composite materials industry.

JEC Composites Magazine: Your professional story began in 1969, with a chemistry and materials technology degree. At that time, how important were composite materials for research and industry?
Luigi Nicolais: “Totally unknown both in research and industry! After graduation, I went to the USA to work at the Washington University in St. Louis, where the first American Government-funded programme on the structural and ageing properties of composite materials was launched.

That historical period marked a real growth in interest for composite materials. In Italy, fibre and resin composites simply did not exist yet.”

Collaboration with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR)
L. to R.: Prof. Luigi Ambrosio (CNR Italy), Dr. Sofi Bin-Salamon (AFOSR), Dr. Katya Delak (National Institute of Standards and Technology), Prof. Luigi Nicolais (President, CNR Italy), Dr. Sonia Ortega (National Science Foundation)

JEC Composites Magazine: In 1969, there was a significant gap between Europe and the USA. When did this gap begin to close?
Luigi Nicolais: “During the 90s. At that time, in Italy, thanks to the collaboration with the Boeing Company, the application of composite materials was transferred to the civil sector. Composite materials were mainly structural and therefore interesting for the transport industry due to the significant weight reduction they could bring. Following aeronautics, these materials were used in the automotive sector, particularly in racing cars. Ferrari started using composite materials for its F1 cars. From this point on, we witnessed a rapid increase in the use of advanced materials.”

JEC Composites Magazine: New production methods, concepts, materials, effective cost reductions… A lot has changed… What are the salient moments and events that brought about the greatest changes?
Luigi Nicolais: “The most significant change occurred when advanced materials from the military field were applied to the civil sector, outlining a significant transition phase characterized by the need to reduce costs. This step led the world of research towards the creation of new technologies. Think for example of the autoclave technology, which is still used today for the Boeing 787, the latest generation aircraft, in which composites exceed 50% of the structure. But temperature is a limiting factor behind the use of FRPs.”

Inside Materias’ lab

JEC Composites Magazine: The environment is essential today. Do you think that FRPs can become “green”? What is your opinion about natural resins? And what about thermoplastics?
Luigi Nicolais: “Many materials based on organic fibres are used in non-structural applications to reduce noise and as thermal insulators. This type of use is more functional than structural.

It all depends on the application, each of these natural fibres has different mechanical and thermal properties. A “composite” is a concept more than a material, a technology platform.

Using natural fibres and biodegradable resins, we can get a naturally biodegradable composite material. But if you need both functional and structural performance, composites have to satisfy certain properties, depending on the application.

Thermoplastics are certainly more eco-friendly because they are always recyclable, while thermosets are not. There is a trend in aeronautics, and even more in the automotive industry, to use thermoplastic-matrix composites. In aeronautics, these materials have not been very successful because no technology was developed for their structural use, while natural-based composites are much easier to use in non-structural parts.”

JEC Composites Magazine: Since July 2016, you have been president of Materias, a company that you co-founded. What are your goals?
Luigi Nicolais: “The idea of founding Materias originates from an analysis of the research results in our country and Europe in general.

The chief material technology breakthrough on the 787 is the increased use of composites, at more than 50% by weight

Many researchers produce high-level knowledge but fail to turn this research into commercial products. In this scenario, it is very difficult to create jobs for young researchers. Last year, Europe established the European Innovation Council, which supports the European Research Council. With Materias, we want to enhance Italian research. To create a new product, money is not enough, skills are required as well. Our company offers to the world of innovation and applied research the opportunity to create products considering not only scientific progress, but also the market, costs, and sustainability: it is a threefold dimension. Materias’ claim is: “ideas come to life for a sustainable world”. We successfully validated our operating model. We proved the importance of basic research to develop new products and also showed how important it is to create innovators and game changers, advancing the frontier of knowledge in order to achieve significant economic goals.”

More information www.materias.it