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Fiberglass (or fibreglass) is a type of fiber-reinforced plastic where the reinforcement fiber is specifically glass fiber. The glass fiber may be randomly arranged, flattened into a sheet (called a chopped strand mat), or woven into a fabric. The plastic matrix may be a thermoset polymer matrix – most often based on thermosetting polymers such as epoxy, polyester resin, or vinylester – or a thermoplastic. Fiberglass is unique in its strength and yet it is lightweight.
The glass fibers are made of various types of glass depending upon the fiberglass use. These glasses all contain silica or silicate, with varying amounts of oxides of calcium, magnesium, and sometimes boron. To be used in fiberglass, glass fibers have to be made with very low levels of defects.
Fiberglass is a strong lightweight material and is used for many products. Although it is not as strong and stiff as composites based on carbon fiber, it is less brittle, and its raw materials are much cheaper. Its bulk strength and weight are also better than many metals, and it can be more readily molded into complex shapes. Applications of fiberglass include aircraft, boats, automobiles, bath tubs and enclosures, swimming pools, hot tubs, septic tanks, water tanks, roofing, pipes, cladding, casts, surfboards, and external door skins.
Other common names for fiberglass are glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), glass-fiber reinforced plastic (GFRP) or GFK (from German: Glasfaserverstärkter Kunststoff). Because glass fiber itself is sometimes referred to as “fiberglass”, the composite is also called “fiberglass reinforced plastic.” This article will adopt the convention that “fiberglass” refers to the complete glass fiber reinforced composite material, rather than only to the glass fiber within it.
Fiberglass is an immensely versatile material due to its light weight, inherent strength, weather-resistant finish and variety of surface textures.
The development of fiber-reinforced plastic for commercial use was extensively researched in the 1930s. It was of particular interest to the aviation industry. A means of mass production of glass strands was accidentally discovered in 1932 when a researcher at Owens-Illinois directed a jet of compressed air at a stream of molten glass and produced fibers. After Owens merged with the Corning company in 1935, Owens Corning adapted the method to produce its patented “Fiberglas” (one “s”). A suitable resin for combining the “Fiberglas” with a plastic was developed in 1936 by du Pont. The first ancestor of modern polyester resins is Cyanamid’s of 1942. Peroxide curing systems were used by then.
During World War II, fiberglass was developed as a replacement for the molded plywood used in aircraft radomes (fiberglass being transparent to microwaves). Its first main civilian application was for the building of boats and sports car bodies, where it gained acceptance in the 1950s. Its use has broadened to the automotive and sport equipment sectors. In production of some products, such as aircraft, carbon fiber is now used instead of fiberglass, which is stronger by volume and weight.
Fiberglass is also used in the telecommunications industry for shrouding antennas, due to its RF permeability and low signal attenuation properties. It may also be used to conceal other equipment where no signal permeability is required, such as equipment cabinets and steel support structures, due to the ease with which it can be molded and painted to blend with existing structures and surfaces. Other uses include sheet-form electrical insulators and structural components commonly found in power-industry products.
Because of fiberglass’s light weight and durability, it is often used in protective equipment such as helmets. Many sports use fiberglass protective gear, such as goaltenders’ and catchers’ masks.