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What is Carbon Fiber?

What is Carbon Fiber? 

If you have not heard the word carbon fiber over the past few years, you might be living under a rock.

From Formula One cars, high-quality helmets, and customized motorcycles, this polymer is slowly taking over the world. In fact, GMC just released the 2015 Sierra Carbon Edition--redefining the word badass.

So you might be asking: What is carbon fiber and why should I care?

Carbon fiber is more than just an epitome of luxury. It’s a product of years of extensive research in the hopes of making the world a better place.


What is Carbon Fiber?

Carbon fiber is a light and fibrous polymer network well-known for its extremely high strength to weight ratio. Numerous studies over the past century proved that it is stronger and lighter than our standard materials of construction.


History of Carbon Fiber:

Carbon fiber was first discovered by Thomas Edison in 1879, when he baked cotton threads and bamboo slivers at high temperatures. Its usage, however, was only limited to the incandescent light bulb.

80 years after Edison’s discovery, Rogen Bacon created the first high-performance version of the material using rayon. Unfortunately, the process was too inefficient to be considered as a viable substitute for steel.

That changed 10 years later when scientists discovered that petroleum pitch can be used and the yields can reach up to 85%.

How Carbon Fiber is Made:

Carbon fibers are currently produced from polymers such as polyacrylonitrite, rayon or, as mentioned, petroleum pitch. The product is spun into thread-like thinness and then heated to drive off the non-carbon atoms. These threads are woven together to form the carbon fiber network.

After molding it into a desired shape, the material is filled with plastic. Examples of plastics used are epoxy, polyester, vinyl and nylon. It holds the fibers together and improves the product’s strength.

Properties of Carbon Fiber:

The notable quality of carbon fiber is the tendency to achieve the strength of a mammoth without weighing like one.

For example, the highest quality carbon fibers can achieve 10 times the strength of steel. To top that off, it’s 3 times lighter than the latter!

After reading through such valuable information, it’s time to answer the million dollar question: why should you care?

Uses and Benefits of Carbon Fiber:

Carbon fiber’s strength is useful in surviving high-impact crashes on cars, motorcycles, and airplanes. This is why more than half the Airbus A380’s body is composed of carbon fiber. In the automotive industry, carbon fiber has been used in the making of high-end race cars.

Due to its lightness, carbon fibers are slowly added to commercial cars to improve fuel economy. The lighter the car will be, the lower is the consumption of fuel and the bigger the savings.

In structural engineering, carbon fiber can be used to strengthen an existing structure. A prime example is increasing the load capacity of a bridge.

Carbon fiber is also getting popular in the sporting goods section. You’ll notice that motorcycle helmets, badminton racquets and surfboards are slowly adding products with carbon fiber in them.

Purchasing one is not just a status symbol. It causes the object to be corrosion resistant, further increasing useful life.

Disadvantages of Carbon Fiber:

If you’re thinking how such useful material took this long to emerge in the market, the sad truth is carbon fiber is still too expensive, unpredictable and difficult to recycle.

How Stuff Works mentions the material’s current price is approximately $10 per pound, but it needs to be reduced to $5 per pound to become cost-effective

To diminish cost, other materials are added in areas where strength is not needed. For example, fiber bodies are lined with aluminium accents.

Another disadvantage is that its stress failure is difficult to predict. The strength of carbon fiber depends on different factors. This makes designing harder than usual and enormous safety margins should be considered.

Lastly, carbon fiber becomes useless when its useful life is spent. Unlike steel, the substance doesn’t regain its glory when recycled.

No need to fret-- scientists are working on making recyclable versions of carbon fiber.  Also, other companies are selling their spent carbon fibers to industries that don’t need only a fraction of their required strength.



Carbon fiber is already impressive as it is, but in time it will be ready for even more commercial success. We just need to work on lowering the cost and reducing waste to consider it as a practical alternative for the masses.


September 24, 2014 by Ciela Jane Geraldizo
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