Introducing the Composite Materials Module

Pawan Soami December 6, 2018
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Composite materials are heterogeneous materials composed of at least two integrated components. Among the different types of composite materials, layered composite materials are quite common and are widely used for aircraft, spacecraft, wind turbine, automobile, marine, buildings, and safety equipment use cases. The Composite Materials Module, add-on to the COMSOL Multiphysics® software, includes built-in features and functionality specifically designed for studying layered composite structures. Fiber-reinforced plastics, laminated plates, and sandwich panels are a few common examples of layered composite materials.

What Is a Composite Material?

Composite materials are stronger and lighter than conventional materials, which is why they have many potential use cases in diverse areas. For instance, some industries are developing “smart” composite materials, which could have sensing, actuation, computation, communication, and other functionality. Before it’s possible to design composite structures out of these materials, though, engineers must have a good understanding of their behavior.

Types of Composite Materials and Their Classification

There are several ways to classify composite materials, one of which is to categorize them based on the type of constituents, namely matrix and reinforcement. Based on the type of matrix material, composite materials can be classified into the following categories:

  • Polymer matrix composites (PMC)
  • Metal matrix composites (MMC)
  • Ceramic matrix composites (CMC)
  • Carbon and graphite matrix composites (CGMC)

Based on the reinforcement shape, composite materials can be classified into fibers, whiskers, and particulates.

3 side-by-side images showing fiber, whisker, and particulate composite materials.
Examples of fiber, whisker, and particulate composites.

Benefits and Challenges of Using Composite Materials

Composite materials offer a lot of advantages when compared to conventional metallic materials. Some of the key benefits are as follows:

  • High strength-to-weight ratio
  • High resistance to fatigue and corrosion degradation
  • Improved friction and wear properties
  • Low thermal conductivity and low coefficient of thermal expansion
  • Ability to tailor material properties to meet design requirements

Since composite materials are manmade, there are also some challenges involved with using these materials. Some examples include the high cost of raw materials and fabrication, difficulty in reuse and disposal, difficulty in joining different components, and various types of failure modes. They also involve anisotropic materials, hence they are challenging to analyze.

Industries that Use Composite Materials

Due to the benefits mentioned above, the use of composite materials is widespread in areas like:

  • Aircraft (e.g., wings and fuselages)
  • Defense (e.g., tanks and submarines)
  • Wind turbines (e.g., blades)
  • Building and construction (e.g., doors, panels, frames, and bridges)
  • Chemical engineering (e.g., pressure vessels, storage tanks, piping, and reactors)
  • Automobiles and transportation (e.g., bicycle and automobile components)
  • Marine and railway transportation (e.g., boat hulls and rail components)
  • Consumer and sports goods (e.g., tennis rackets and golf club shafts)
  • Electronics (e.g., distribution pillars and link boxes)
  • Orthopedic aids
  • Safety equipment

Fiber-Reinforced Plastics

Among other composite materials, fiber-reinforced plastics (FRPs) are quite popular these days. These materials typically consist of a fibrous part, which acts as the main load-carrying element, and a surrounding matrix/resin, which supports the fiber and transfers the load. The fibers are arranged in a specified orientation in each layer (or lamina) of the material. A number of such laminae are stacked to form a laminated composite material that can be used to build a structural component. Fibers for industrial uses are, in general, made of carbon, glass, aramid, or basalt. Based on the type of fiber material, the two most popular FRPs available and typically used in the industry are carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) and glass-fiber-reinforced plastics (GFRP), also known as fiberglass.

Types of Laminates

A composite laminate is defined as the stacking of two or more unidirectional layers/plies/laminae with a uniform or varied fiber orientation with respect to a reference direction. The laminae can be made of the same material or different ones and can have individual thicknesses. The stacking sequence is essentially defined by the fiber orientation in each ply with respect to the first axis of the laminate coordinate system.

An image showing the stacking sequence for a composite laminate.
Stacking sequence (0/45/90/45/0) of an antisymmetric balanced laminate.

Based on the stacking sequence, composite laminates can be classified into the following categories:

  • Angle-ply laminate (e.g., 45/30/-45/-30)
  • Cross-ply laminate (e.g., 0/90/0/90)
  • Balanced laminate (e.g., 0/45/90/-45)
  • Symmetric laminate (e.g., 45/30/30/45)
  • Antisymmetric laminate (e.g., 45/30/-30/-45)

Analyzing a composite laminate can be rather challenging, as the geometric scale of fibers, plies, and laminates are quite different. That is the reason the complete analysis is performed at two levels or scales: micromechanics analysis and macromechanics analysis.

Micromechanics (Fiber-Matrix Modeling)

This step deals with simulating either a single lamina or a typical unit cell that has a fiber surrounded by a matrix. The purpose of this step is to calculate the lamina’s homogenized material properties.

An image of a unit cell in a layer of fiber composite material.
Representative unit cell of a fiber composite layer having a 60% fiber volume fraction.

About Cell Periodicity

In COMSOL Multiphysics®, the micromechanics analysis is performed using the Cell Periodicity node in the Solid Mechanics interface. It needs a 3D solid geometry of a unit cell with a fiber and matrix along with their material properties. This analysis, which is based on a representative volume element (RVE) technique, is performed for six load cases and material data for a homogenized material is created. To find out more, see the Micromechanics and Stress Analysis of a Composite Cylinder example.

6 plots of the von Mises stress and deformation for different load cases of a unit cell.
Von Mises stress distribution together with the deformation in a unit cell for six different load cases.

Macromechanics (Laminate Modeling)

This step deals with the modeling of a laminate that has many layers. The homogenized material properties of a lamina computed from the micromechanics analysis are used as input. The aim is to compute the response of a laminate under various loading conditions.

To model a composite laminate, the following properties need to be specified:

  • Number of layers
  • Homogenized material properties of each layer
  • Orientation of the principal material directions
  • Thickness of each layer
  • Stacking sequence

A cross-sectional schematic of a composite laminate.
Cross section of a composite laminate showing the thickness and fiber orientation of each layer.

Modeling Layered Materials in COMSOL Multiphysics®

To define the laminate properties discussed above in the Composite Materials Module, a Layered Material node is used. In this node, the required number of layers can be added, and inputs can be either directly entered in the table or loaded from a text file. Once the inputs are specified, it is possible to preview the cross section as well as the stacking sequence of the laminate. The Layered Material node, containing the laminate definition, can be saved in the material library and loaded at a later point in time.

A screenshot of the Settings window for a Layered Material node.
Example of a Layered Material node.

Once the laminate is defined using the Layered Material node, it can be attached to the geometric boundaries through the Layered Material Link or Layered Material Stack node. While doing so, the laminate coordinate system as well as the position of the geometric surface with respect to the laminate are also defined. The laminate coordinate system is further used to interpret the stacking sequence and create a layerwise local coordinate system.

Laminate Theories

Now that the laminate is defined and attached to geometric boundaries, let’s take a look at the laminate theories. The analysis of laminated composite shells is commonly based on one of three different theories:

  1. Equivalent single layer (ESL) theory
    • Classical laminated plate theory (CLPT)
    • First-order shear deformation laminated plate theory (FSDT)
    • Higher-order shear deformation laminated plate theory
  2. Three-dimensional elasticity theory
    • 3D elasticity theory
    • Layerwise theory
  3. Multiple model methods

In COMSOL Multiphysics, ESL-FSDT and the layerwise theory are implemented.

Equivalent Single Layer Theory (ESL-FSDT)

In ESL-FSDT, homogenized material properties of the entire laminate are computed and equations are solved only at the midplane. This theory has a shell-like formulation with degrees of freedom (DOFs) in the form of three displacements and three rotations on the meshed boundary in 3D. This theory is suitable for thin to moderately thick laminates and can be used for finding the global response as gross deflections, eigenfrequencies, critical buckling load, and in-plane stresses. Compared to the layerwise theory, ESL-FSDT is computationally inexpensive; however, it requires a shear correction factor for thicker laminates.

A schematic of the degrees of freedom for the equivalent single layer theory.
DOF nodes in ESL-FSDT.

Layerwise Theory

In this theory, equations are solved also in the thickness direction; hence, it can be used for very thick laminates, including delaminated regions. This theory has a solid-like formulation with DOFs in the form of three displacements distributed also in the thickness direction. This theory is suitable for moderately thin to thick laminates and can be used to predict correct interlaminar stresses and delamination and to perform detailed damage analysis. It supports nonlinear material models and doesn’t require a shear correction factor, as opposed to ESL-FSDT.

A schematic of the degrees of freedom for the layerwise theory.
DOF nodes in the layerwise theory.

From a formulation point of view, the layerwise theory is quite similar to the 3D elasticity theory; however, it has the following advantages over the latter theory:

  • The laminate coordinate system and layer local coordinate system are easy to define
  • In-plane and out-of-plane shape functions can have different orders
  • There’s no need to build a 3D geometry with many thin layers
  • In-plane finite element meshing is independent of the out-of-plane meshing
  • The layerwise and interfacial data is easy to handle

Selecting an Appropriate Laminate Theory

Based on the above descriptions, a suitable laminate theory can be chosen. A simple rule of thumb is to choose a laminate theory based on the laminate aspect ratio, which is defined as the ratio of laminate length to the laminate thickness.

A plot comparing the range of validity for two laminate theories.
Range of validity for the two laminate theories based on the laminate aspect ratio.

Physics Interfaces for Composite Materials

In COMSOL Multiphysics, composite laminates are analyzed either using the layerwise theory through the Layered Shell interface or using ESL-FSDT through the Layered Linear Elastic Material in Shell interface. Salient features of the Layered Shell and Shell interfaces are described below.

Mixed Shape Discretization

The Layered Shell interface allows for a different shape order in the base surface and thickness direction. The four mixed shape elements available are as follows:

  • Quadratic-linear Lagrange
  • Quadratic-linear serendipity
  • Quadratic-cubic Lagrange
  • Quadratic-cubic serendipity

The quadratic-linear shape is intended for faster simulation results, whereas the quadratic-cubic shape is good for more accuracy in through-thickness results.

4 images showing the mixed shape discretization elements in COMSOL Multiphysics.
The mixed shape discretization elements in the Layered Shell interface.

Layered Material Continuity

The Layered Shell interface allows you to join two laminates placed next to each other using the Continuity node. With this functionality, you can model a ply drop-off scenario.

A schematic showing 3 ways to set up laminate continuity in COMSOL Multiphysics.
Different ways of setting up the continuity between two laminates placed side-by-side.

Nonlinear Materials

It is possible to include nonlinear material models (for example, viscoelasticity, creep, and viscoplasticity) in a few or all of the layers of a laminate. This functionality is available in the Layered Shell interface.

A, B, D Matrix Computation

The standard stiffness and flexibility matrices can be evaluated using the Layered Linear Elastic Material node in the Shell interface. The four stiffness matrices available are:

  1. Extensional stiffness matrix (A)
  2. Bending-extensional stiffness matrix (B)
  3. Bending stiffness matrix (D)
  4. Shear stiffness matrix (As)

You can check out the Material Characteristics of Laminated Composite Shell example for more details.

Postprocessing Tools for Composite Material Modeling

Layered Material Dataset

As the geometry contains only surfaces, the Layered Material dataset is used to display the results of the simulation on a geometry that has a finite thickness. With this dataset, you can increase or decrease the laminate thickness in the normal direction, which is useful for thin laminates. In addition, you can create surface plots, volume plots, slices plots, etc. in 3D.

A collage of plots created with a Layered Material dataset.
Various plots created using the Layered Material dataset.

Layered Material Slice Plot

For composite laminates, the Layered Material Slice plot offers more freedom when making slices. Some of the instances where this plot is useful include creating a slice:

  • Through one (or a couple of) layers
  • Through many (or all) of the layers (note that you do not need to place the slices in the through-thickness direction)
  • At a certain position in the layer, although not in the midplane

A collage of simulate results created with the Layered Material Slice plot.
Von Mises stress in the middle of each layer of a laminate, created using the Layered Material Slice plot.

Through Thickness Plot

This plot is used to determine the variation of different quantities through the thickness of the laminate. You can choose one or several geometric points on the boundary. You also have the option to create a dataset of the cut points as well as to directly enter the point coordinates.

A plot of the through-thickness variation of stress in a laminate.
Through-thickness variation of the transverse shear stress at one point in a laminate.

Failure Analyses of Composite Structures

First-Ply Failure

A first-ply failure analysis is possible in both laminate theories. It is performed using the Safety node under the Linear Elastic Material node. A number of failure criterion are supported; e.g., Tsai-Wu, Tsai-Hill, etc. You can refer to the Failure Prediction in a Laminated Composite Shell example for more details.

A plot of the Hoffman safety factor in laminate plies.
Hoffman safety factor in different plies of a laminate.


Linear buckling is possible in both laminate theories; however, ESL-FSDT is more efficient in finding the critical buckling load factor as compared to the layerwise theory. It is possible to optimize a layup in order to maximize the critical buckling load. For more information, see the Buckling of a Composite Cylinder example.

A collage showing the different mode shapes for buckling in a composite cylinder.
Example of the buckling of a composite cylinder. The four different mode shapes (diamond, axisymmetric, and two spirals) corresponding to different stacking sequences are shown.


Delamination modeling is possible using the layerwise theory. The Thin Elastic Layer, Interface node is used to model the delaminated zone. To learn more, check out the Forced Vibration Analysis of a Composite Laminate example.

Schematic of a composite laminate that includes a delaminated region.
Plot of a delaminated composite structure.

Left: Composite laminate with and without a delaminated region. Right: Von Mises stress distribution at 500 Hz when subjected to a bending load.

Multiphysics Analyses of a Composite Laminate

Joule Heating and Thermal Expansion

Joule heating and thermal expansion in composite structures can be modeled using the following physics interfaces:

  • Electric Currents, Layered Shell
  • Heat Transfer in Shells
  • Layered Shell

The coupling between different physics is defined using the following multiphysics coupling nodes:

  • Electromagnetic Heating, Layered Shell
  • Thermal Expansion, Layered Shell
  • Temperature Coupling
A plot of the electric potential in a composite laminate.
A plot of the temperature distribution in a composite laminate.
A plot of the von Mises stress distribution in a composite laminate.

Example of Joule heating and thermal expansion in a composite laminate. Left: Electric potential. Middle: Temperature distribution. Right: Von Mises stress distribution.

You can refer to the Thermal Expansion of a Laminated Composite Shell example for more details.

Acoustics-Composite Interaction

Acoustics-composite interaction can be modeled using the following physics interfaces:

  • Pressure Acoustics
  • Shell > Layered Linear Elastic Material

The Acoustic-Structure Boundary multiphysics coupling node is used to define the interaction between the two physics.

A plot of the SPL in the air domain surrounding the composite plate.
A plot of the von Mises stress distribution in a composite plate.

Example of an acoustics-composite interaction. Left: Sound pressure level in the air domain. Right: Von Mises stresses in a composite plate.

Fluid-Composite Interaction

This interaction can be modeled using the following physics interfaces:

  • Laminar Flow
  • Shell > Layered Linear Elastic Material
  • The Fluid-Structure Interaction multiphysics coupling node is used to define the interaction between the two physics.

    A plot of the velocity magnitude in a fluid-composite interaction.
    A plot of the stress distribution in a fluid-composite plate interaction.

    Example of a fluid-composite interaction. Left: Velocity magnitude of the fluid flow. Right: Von Mises stresses in a composite plate.

    Wind Turbine Blade Example

    Using the abovementioned functionality, a wind turbine composite blade is modeled. The blade considered here is 61.5 m long and the geometry has 19 different sections that are defined by airfoil shapes. The aim of the analysis is to find the stress distribution in the skin and spar under gravity and centrifugal forces. Also, the natural frequencies and mode shapes are computed at different speeds.

    A model of a wind turbine blade modeled with the Composite Materials Module.
    Example of a wind turbine composite blade. The von Mises stress distribution in the skin and spar of the blade is shown.

    To try this example yourself, see the wind turbine composite blade model.

    Next Step

    Find out more about the dedicated functionality for modeling composite structures in the Composite Materials Module. Contact COMSOL via the button below to evaluate the software.

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