What Is Carbon Fiber

A Beginners Guide to The Lightweight Composite Material

Carbon Fiber
Carbon Fiber. DaveAlan/E+/Getty Images

Carbon fiber is, exactly what it sounds like – fiber made of carbon. But, these fibers are only a base. What is commonly referred to as carbon fiber is a material consisting of very thin filaments of carbon atoms. When bound together with plastic polymer resin by heat, pressure or in a vacuum a composite material is formed that is both strong and lightweight.

Much like cloth, beaver dams, or a rattan chair, the strength of carbon fiber is in the weave.

The more complex the weave, the more durable the composite will be. It is helpful to imagine a wire screen that is interwoven with another screen at an angle, and another at a slightly different angle, and so on, with each wire in each screen made of carbon fiber strands. Now imagine this mesh of screens drenched in liquid plastic, and then pressed or heated until the material fuses together. The angle of the weave, as well as the resin used with the fiber, will determine the strength of the overall composite. The resin is most commonly epoxy, but can also be thermoplastic, polyurethane, vinyl ester, or polyester.

Alternatively, a mold may be cast and the carbon fibers applied over it. The carbon fiber composite is then allowed to cure, often by a vacuum process. In this method, the mold is used to achieve the desired shape. This technique is preferred for uncomplicated forms that are needed on demand.

Carbon fiber material has a wide range of applications, as it can be formed at various densities in limitless shapes and sizes. Carbon fiber is often shaped into tubing, fabric, and cloth, and can be custom-formed into any number of composite parts and pieces.

Common Uses of Carbon Fiber

  • High-end automobile components
  • Bicycle frames
  • Fishing rods
  • Shoe soles
  • Baseball bats
  • Protective cases for laptops and iPhones

More exotic uses can be found in the:

  • Aeronautics and aerospace industries
  • Oil and gas industry
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles
  • Satellites
  • Formula-1 race cars

Some would argue, though, that the possibilities for carbon fiber are limited only by demand and the manufacturer’s imagination. Now, it’s evencommon to find carbon fiber in:

  • Musical instruments
  • Furniture
  • Art
  • Structural elements of buildings
  • Bridges
  • Wind turbine blades

If carbon fiber could be said to have any detractions, it would be production cost. Carbon fiber is not easily mass-produced, and is therefore very expensive.

A carbon fiber bicycle will easily run in the thousands of dollars, and its use in automotive is still limited to exotic racing cars. Carbon fiber is popular in these items and others are due to its weight-to-strength ratio and its resistance to flame, so much so that there is a market for synthetics that look like carbon fiber. However, imitations are often only partially carbon fiber or simply plastic made to look like carbon fiber. This occurs often in after-market protective casings for computers and other small consumer electronics.

The upside is that carbon fiber parts and products, if not damaged, will almost literally last forever. This makes them a good investment for consumers, and also keeps products in circulation. For example, if a consumer is not willing to pay for a set of brand new carbon fiber golf clubs, there is a chance those clubs will be pop up on the secondary used market.

Carbon fiber is often confused with fiberglass, and while there are similarities in manufacturing and some crossover in end products like furniture and automobile moldings, they are different. Fiberglass is a polymer that is reinforced with woven strands of silica glass rather than carbon. Carbon fiber composites are stronger, while fiberglass has more flexibility.

And, both have various chemical compositions that make them better suited for different applications.

Recycling carbon fiber is very difficult. The only available method for complete recycling is a process called thermal depolymerization, wherein the carbon fiber product is superheated in an oxygen-free chamber. The freed carbon can then be secured and reused, and whatever bonding or reinforced material that was used (epoxy, vinyl, etc.) is burned away. Carbon fiber can also be broken down manually at lower temperatures, but the resulting material will be weaker due to the shortened fibers, and thus likely not to be used in its most ideal application. For example, a large piece of tubing that is no longer being used may be split up, and the remaining parts used for computer casings, briefcases or furniture.

Carbon fiber is an incredibly useful material used in composites, and it will continue to grow manufacturing market share. As more methods of producing carbon fiber composites economically are developed, the price will continue to fall, and more industries will take advantage of this unique material.