As technology and modern industry has developed, reinforced composite materials, such as particle- or short-fiber-reinforced composites and long-fiber-reinforced or sandwich laminates, have been widely applied in the aerospace, construction, transportation, machinery, chemical, and other industries. In recent years, as a representative of new engineering materials, carbon nanotube (CNT) at nanoscale has shown superior mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties, as well as low density and high aspect ratio, which make it an ideal choice for composite reinforcement. CNT-reinforced nanocomposite is a multi-phase material, and its external macro-physical properties strongly depend on the properties of its constituents and complex internal microstructure. Experimental evaluation requires large amounts of material samples and a large testing work load, giving simulation of the physical properties of nanocomposites important engineering significance.

There has been extensive research on the mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties of CNT-reinforced nanocomposites. For instance, the thermal properties [1–3] and electrical properties of CNT-reinforced nanocomposites [4, 5] have been explored experimentally in some previous studies. Moreover, due to the complexity and variations of the CNT-reinforced composite microstructure, theoretical analyses and numerical simulation methods are common strategies to estimate composite physical properties. For instance, diffusion and thermal expansion coefficients of CNT-reinforced nanocomposites have been studied through micromechanics models without sufficient atomic scale information [6] or molecular dynamics (MD) models with very high computational cost and complexity [7].

In recent years, to deal with the remarkable scale difference in CNT-reinforced nanocomposites, multi-scale modeling has been widely used for predicting the mechanical properties [8], electrical properties [9], and thermal conductivity [10] of the CNT-reinforced nanocomposites. However, to the best knowledge of the present authors, there has been no report on the multi-scale modeling of thermal expansion properties of the CNT-reinforced nanocomposites to date. In this work, the thermal expansion properties of the CNT-reinforced nanocomposites, i.e., CNT/epoxy, were evaluated using a sequential multi-scale numerical model. The present study focused on the effects of two key parameters, i.e., temperature and CNT content, on the thermal expansion properties. Moreover, it was found that the results of the present multi-scale numerical model agree very well with those based on theoretical predictions and experimental measurements carried out in this work.