The Many Exciting Uses of Carbon Fiber Composites

Carbon fiber is an extremely versatile material. This sleek composite is used in a range of high-performance applications and is recognized for its excellent strength and stiffness compared to its weight. From high-end automobiles and sporting goods to aerospace and medical solutions, carbon fiber is everywhere. What's even more exciting is that carbon fiber applications are expected to grow. As modern technology evolves and carbon fiber manufacturing costs decrease, professionals expect an explosion in carbon fiber composite products across many industries.

Interested in carbon fiber composites and composite technology? Learn more about how we got here, the current uses of carbon fiber, and how to get involved in the future of carbon fiber composite technology.

Carbon Fiber: Who Made This Stuff?

Before we dive into carbon fiber's uses today, it's important to know where this material came from. While most people think of carbon fiber as an ultramodern, space-age material, it has actually been around for over 150 years. However, the earliest forms of this material looked very different from the carbon fiber we know today. 

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan first experimented with carbon filament, carbon fiber's predecessor, in the mid-1800s. This material gained broader recognition in the hands of Thomas Edison, who used it in 1879 as the filament for the first incandescent lightbulb. At this time, carbon fiber filaments were produced by forming high-cellulose materials like cotton or bamboo into shapes and then baking them at high temperatures. This process, called "pyrolysis," carbonized the materials to form carbon fiber filaments. 

While this served as the starting point for carbon fiber, it was a rocky start. Carbon fiber filaments were largely replaced with tungsten wire over time. As a result, carbon fiber became largely obsolete for decades. The only carbon fiber application that remained through those years was in U.S. Navy ships, which used lightbulbs with carbon fiber filaments rather than tungsten due to their improved ability to handle ship vibrations. 

There was some interest in the 1940s and '50s in bringing carbon fiber back — mostly led by the company Union Carbide. But carbon fiber was largely overlooked at this time due to its poor mechanical properties. This all changed in 1958.

The Evolution of Carbon Fiber

At the end of World War II, Union Carbide began looking into potential applications for carbon fiber, starting with carbonized rayon. They produced some products for the military, such as carbonized rayon cloth as a fiberglass alternative. Most of their success was in niche areas rather than industry-altering applications. This changed with a key set of discoveries and developments from the 1950s through the 1970s, which transformed carbon fiber's role in the industry forever. Here's the breakdown by decade: 

The 1950s 

In 1958, Roger Bacon accidentally produced the first petroleum-based carbon fibers when working for Union Carbide. Bacon was trying to measure the triple point of carbon. In the process of heating strands of rayon with argon, Bacon saw that carbon fiber filaments were starting to form in the arc furnace. 

While this process only produced fibers that were 20% carbon and did so in an extremely inefficient and cost-prohibitive way, this discovery set the development of carbon fiber in motion. Immediately after the discovery, the world caught on and started its own research into carbon fiber production.

The 1960s 

The '60s saw significant developments in carbon fiber out of the U.S., Japan, and the U.K. Manufacturers in each country developed new production methods for carbon fiber with varying success. In the U.S., Bacon and Wesley Schalamon developed a new rayon-based production method called "hot-stretching," which involved stretching rayon yarn while it was being heated to produce stronger fibers. 

Japan developed a carbon fiber production method that produced superior 55% carbon fibers from synthetic polyacrylonitrile (PAN). The U.K. also made major headway in carbon fiber production, ultimately resulting in new jet engine assemblies by Rolls Royce, which utilized carbon fiber compressor blades. These blades were short-lived, as they were vulnerable to bird impact. 

The 1970s and Beyond

In the '70s, Union Carbide formed a joint technology agreement with Japanese companies, allowing them to work with PAN-based carbon fiber production methods. Afterward, PAN largely supplanted rayon as the primary material for carbon fiber production.

Since the '70s, carbon fiber has seen massive growth and development. Carbon fiber yarns containing up to 95% carbon later hit the market, providing incredible tensile strength and elasticity. Manufacturing processes also improved, driving down production costs for carbon fiber materials. These factors led engineers in the 1990s and 2000s to dive even further into carbon fiber and its applications, resulting in the broad range of carbon fiber applications you see in today's industries.

Traditional Uses of Carbon Fiber 

The history of carbon fiber is complex, but the big takeaway is this — modern carbon fiber hasn't been around for very long. The first versions of the material were extremely weak, especially by today's standards. On top of the material's poor physical qualities, the complexity of production made it cost-inefficient to produce on a broad scale until the late 1960s. 

When the technology became available, there were a few key industries that picked it up quickly:

·      Military: The military was the first industry to use carbon fiber in a significant capacity. This started with the U.S. Navy, which utilized incandescent lightbulbs with carbon fiber filaments due to their resistance to ship vibrations. The military also funded a great deal of Union Carbide's early research into rayon-based carbon fibers, utilizing the results for rocket and aircraft components. After the development of stronger carbon fibers, the military quickly latched on to the material in a greater capacity.

·      Aerospace: The aerospace industry was one of the first industries to adopt carbon fiber. Starting with Rolls Royce's carbon fiber compressor blades in jet engine assemblies in the 1960s, the aerospace industry quickly began looking into carbon fiber as a replacement for aluminum and titanium in certain types of components. Much of this interest was due to the superior strength-to-weight ratio of carbon fiber compared to other metals.

·      Sporting goods: British researchers in the mid-1960s developed PAN-based carbon fiber that featured high strength compared to weight. Manufacturers quickly capitalized on these properties, and British companies produced some of the first carbon fiber golf clubs, tennis rackets, and skis.

From these humble beginnings, carbon fiber applications quickly grew as the material was researched and developed and production costs decreased. 

Some Really Cool Uses of Carbon Fiber 

Today, a new application for carbon fiber seems to appear every day. While half a decade ago carbon fiber was exotic and expensive, you can now find carbon fiber in a huge range of industries and applications. Just a few uses of carbon fiber include: 

·      Automobiles: Carbon fiber has been adopted rapidly in automobile manufacturing. The material first found its use in Formula 1 and NASCAR vehicles due to its strength-to-weight ratio, which helped develop faster cars. The material also gained traction in the production of high-end cars due to its sleek, high-tech look. As costs come down, carbon fiber is expected to be used in components for mass-produced cars, such as housings and frames. 

·      Aerospace: Aerospace was one of the first industries to adopt carbon fiber due to its strength and weight savings, and they've made good use of the material. In fact, 30% of all carbon fiber is used in the aerospace industry. From spacecraft and aircraft to helicopters and gliders, carbon fiber is everywhere in the modern aerospace industry. 

·      Military: Military carbon fiber applications have come a long way since the 1800s. Whereas carbon fiber was initially used for lighting in naval ships, today's carbon fiber is used in everything from missiles and drones to helmets and tent posts. The key benefits of carbon fiber for the military are its strength and lightweight nature, facilitating easier transportation and improved energy conservation. 

·      Sporting goods: Carbon fiber is everywhere in sports goods due to its strength and light weight. In fact, carbon fiber is often seen as a top-tier material for professional sports. Hockey sticks, tennis racquets, archery bows, and golf clubs made from carbon fiber are often used in competitions, while carbon fiber rowing shells and bicycles are the new standards. Even clothing and protective gear are made with carbon fiber, with racing sports often using carbon fiber helmets and shoes.

·      Medicine: The medical field is another industry where carbon fiber has made significant headway in recent years. Carbon fiber shows up as transparent on X-ray images, which has led to its use in a wide range of X-ray and imaging equipment. Carbon fiber is also used in prosthetic limbs, which are strong, light, and comfortable to wear and use.

On top of broad industry applications, carbon fiber is gaining traction as a material for in-home and DIY uses. Carbon fiber is an eye-catching material for furniture, utensils, and even statement clothes. These days, it's easy to find pre-made or ready-to-assemble kits so anyone can have or make their own carbon fiber accessories. 

The Future of Carbon Fiber 

Today's carbon fibers are nearly five times stronger than steel and three times lighter. These properties make carbon fiber extremely interesting for a range of industries, especially the automotive and aerospace industries. The reasons are simple:

·      Speed: Lower material weights for vehicles mean they can go faster than ever before, which is particularly useful for racing and travel applications.

·      Strength: Stronger materials mean that less material is required to achieve the same level of strength. In the aerospace industry, strength is required to protect components and maintain structural integrity. Carbon fiber can achieve this without increasing the weight of the craft.

·      Efficiency: One of the key reasons automotive and aerospace engineers see carbon fiber as the material of the future has to do with fuel efficiency. As an example, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is the best-selling passenger plane in history primarily due to its carbon fiber reinforcements. The use of carbon fiber means this plane is lighter and requires less energy to get off the ground and stay in the air. Less energy required means less fuel used, making these planes less expensive to operate and maintain. This principle is true for the entire automotive and aerospace industries — lighter-weight vehicles have better fuel efficiency, which is better for users and the environment.

The limiting factor for the industry's use of carbon fiber at the moment is cost. Manufacturing carbon fiber is still expensive, largely due to the costly materials required and the low yields produced in each manufacturing cycle. Industry professionals are hopeful about the future of carbon fiber. Lower-cost input materials and more effective manufacturing methods are on the horizon, with professionals expecting lower-cost fibers within the next few decades.

Interested in Making Some of These Things? IYRS Has a Place for You

The future of carbon fiber composite materials is bright. With new advancements and applications appearing every day, the carbon fiber industry is steadily growing. As carbon fiber manufacturing techniques improve, we can expect an uptick of carbon fiber use across practically every industry. When that happens, the industry needs people who are trained and passionate about carbon fiber and composites technology. 

Do you want to get involved with the fascinating world of carbon fiber? Do you want to contribute to the development of new and exciting manufacturing technology? If so, IYRS School of Technology & Trades has the program to help you get started.

IYRS has its roots in craftsmanship, developing students into makers, builders, designers, and technicians who will help shape the future of our world. One of our programs is Composites Technology, which prepares students for hands-on careers in composite technology. Our immersive, nationally accredited training program gets students ready to work with carbon fiber, fiberglass, and other composites in a range of industries from aerospace and automobiles to sporting goods and renewable energy. 

With faculty who offer decades of experience and a passion for teaching paired with a curriculum that includes design fundamentals, CAD drawing, and hands-on learning and practice, IYRS will prepare you to take the Certified Composites Technician (CCT) exams and step into your new career. The need for composite technicians has never been greater, and the need grows every day. Get started with your new career by getting in touch with our Admissions team for answers to any questions you have about IYRS. Contact us or schedule a visit today.