Carbon fiber is all around us. According to Rock West Composites, a Salt Lake City company that supplies carbon fiber and other composite materials, carbon fiber is found in airplanes, cars, sporting goods, and so much more. And yet people still know very little about this space-age material.
For example, did you know that a carbon fiber bicycle frame is not made exclusively from fibers of carbon? The fibers are mixed with an epoxy resin and cured in a high-heat autoclave to create what chemistry defines as a plastic. Fibers of carbon without the epoxy would not have much use in our everyday lives.
There is an awful lot to learn about carbon fiber. So let’s start with these four surprising facts that only begin to tell the story:
1. Carbon Fiber Was Invented in 1958
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the carbon fiber we know today was first invented in a lab in Cleveland, Ohio. It was 1958 when scientists at Union Carbide’s Parma Technical Center came up with a carbonized rayon cloth that they believed would be better than fiberglass for aerospace applications. They pitched their new fabric to the U.S. Air Force with great success.
The DOE says that carbon fiber didn’t really take off until British researchers came up with better manufacturing processes in the 1960s. Thank goodness they did because the whole world has been made better for it.
2. Manufacturing is Expensive
It is not unusual for consumers with a basic understanding of carbon fiber to be surprised by how costly it is to manufacture. Rest assured it is. It takes a tremendous amount of heat energy to align carbon molecules in such a way as to manufacture fibers and carbon tow. The process is made even more expensive when it comes time to transform carbon fiber and tow into usable consumer products.
3. Carbon Fiber Is Woven into Fabric
One of the products they sell at Rock West Composites is carbon fiber fabric. Once engineers successfully create carbon tow, it can be woven into a fabric the same way a cotton thread is. Weaving is what makes carbon fibers usable for consumer products.
Imagine multiple pieces of carbon fiber fabric being laid into a mold and impregnated with epoxy resin. A completed layup is put in an autoclave, where the high heat environment cures the epoxy and creates a strong, durable, solid piece that can be removed from its mold. Buried deep in that piece is the carbon fiber fabric.
4. Carbon Fiber Products Can Be 3D Printed
One of the most exciting developments in the carbon fiber industry is the ability to combine carbon fiber tow with 3D printing. It is actually a very fascinating process to follow.
A specialized printer with two ‘print heads’ simultaneously lays down carbon fiber tow (thread) and an epoxy resin. Because the resin does not need high heat, it can set in place. This allows the printer to lay down the carbon and epoxy simultaneously with the expectation that the epoxy will begin curing almost immediately.
Printing carbon fiber parts with 3D printing technology still has a long way to go. But we have already seen some tremendous results using the technology currently available to us.
There is a lot more about carbon fiber to know. The few things mentioned here do not even scratch the surface. Needless to say that carbon fiber has changed the way we manufacture a lot of different things. Take a look around your own house. You probably have carbon fiber parts in more products than you’re aware of.