Glassmakers throughout history have experimented with glass fibres, but mass manufacture of fibreglass was only made possible with the advent of finer machine-tooling. In 1893, Edward Drummond Libbey exhibited a dress at the World’s Columbian Exposition incorporating glass fibres with the diameter and texture of silk fibres. What is commonly known as “fibreglass” today, was invented in 1938 by Russell Games Slayter of Owens-Corning as a material to be used as insulation.
Fibreglass gave rise to the first modern composites and is still the most commonly used. It makes up about 65% of all the composite materials produced today. There are five fibreglass manufacturers in the UK operating eight sites and producing two main products – short fibres and continuous filament yarns.
A multitude of uses
Fibre has over 40,000 different applications, including reinforcement of plastics and rubber, electronics and wall coverings. Drawn as a continuous filament it can be manufactured into yarn and is especially useful in the reinforcement of plastic products (being fire-resistant) and in thermal insulation.
Glass fibres are also an extremely versatile material and have many uses from roof insulation to medical equipment. Its composition varies depending on its application.
Glass Reinforced Plastic
GRP or glass fibre reinforced plastic consists of two distinct materials, fibres of glass which are the reinforcement and a polymer resin normally polyester, which serves as the matrix. The polyester resin polymer alone is brittle and has a low strength but when fibres of glass are embedded in the polymer it becomes strong, tough, resilient and flexible. It becomes an ideal material to make boat hulls, swimming pool linings, car bodies, roofing and furniture. The other advantage of GRP is that it is very light and so ideal for use in racing boats and cars.
The 2019 Science & Technology Prize was awarded to the Engineering Division of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) for their pioneering work on the design and increased structural integrity of glass fibre hulls of life boats.