Once, the only materials we could use to build with were what we could find in nature. Wood, stone, clay, iron, and bronze allowed us to build houses, tools, and weapons.
Over time, we discovered we could create new substances and materials, that were stronger and lighter than before. Carbon fibre is one of the most significant materials we have synthesized, and has changed how we approach the challenge of engineering.
Carbon fibre is a long thin strand of carbon atoms that can be woven into larger structures. The atoms are bonded together into microscopic crystals, which make it incredibly strong for its small size.
Lighter and stronger than steel, carbon fibre has many uses, and so can be found in many different products. The material is commonly found in golf clubs, bicycle parts, and wind turbines.
Carbon fibre is made from organic polymers: long strands of molecules bound by carbon atoms. These strands are then heated to the a very high temperature, around 1,000-3,000 degrees Celsius. The high temperature causes the atoms in the fibre to vibrate, expelling the non-carbon atoms in a process known as carbonisation. This vaporises about 50% of the total material, leaving the carbon locked in tight compact chains, giving the material its strength. It’s also highly durable, and resistant to corrosion.
The United States and Japan are some of the leading exporters of carbon fibre.
Carbon fibre dates back to 1860, used by Joseph Swan in early lightbulbs. Thomas Edison would also use it for filaments in his designs. The material’s tolerance to heat made it ideal for conducting electricity. These were not the same carbon fibres that we know today, they were made from baked cotton threads and bamboo slivers. When these were burnt, they carbonised into an all-carbon filament.
However, it wasn’t until 1958 that carbon fibre as we understand it today was first synthesised. These first fibres were created by heating rayon until the carbonisation process began. This resulted in only around 20% carbon being formed, and so the process was improved and refined over the coming decades.
Over the next decade, the carbon fibre industry is predicted to triple in value to around $6 billion.
There is a growing demand for strong, lightweight materials across all industries. The material is vital for the wind energy industry, predicted to be worth almost 50% of the market by the end of next year. Carbon turbines blades can be longer and tougher than fibreglass models, and are more resilient to the harsh conditions at sea.
Due to the incredibly light weight of carbon fibre, we’ll likely see more of it in our transportation, as lighter transport is more fuel efficient. Luckily the cost of producing the material is getting lower thanks to automation.
However, carbon fibre could create waste problems in the future if careful action isn’t taken to ensure its safe disposal or recycling into new forms. Carbon fibre cannot be simply melted down like other materials.
Composite technology solutions allow for greater creativity in the design of new products or structures, and innovation is the key to driving engineering forward.