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Carbon Fiber

Everything about carbon fiber

How carbon fiber changed the world can be told by looking at the history of tennis rackets: Until the mid-1970s, these were made of wood, then the first rackets made of steel and aluminum came along. Less than 20 years later, carbon-fiber racquets were dominant. In conjunction with plastics, an extremely resilient and at the same time very light material was created. Of course, it is also installed in the automotive industry.

What are carbon fibers?

Carbon fibers, also known as carbon fibers, are a high-quality, extremely stable and very light material. In 1963, the first breakthrough was made in England, which made it possible to use carbon fibers on a large scale. Carbon fibers have been used in many areas since the 1990s. These are obtained from carbonaceous starting materials and consist of 1,000 to 50,000 filaments. A single filament has a diameter between 5 and 7 µm. For comparison: a human hair is almost 10 times thicker.
The carbon fiber is unique in its mechanical and dynamic properties:
- Low density
- High strength and elasticity
- Hardly any tendency to creep
- Low material fatigue
- High vibration damping
In versatile use, the chemical properties are also important. The carbon fiber is
- resistant to corrosion
- Reaction inactive
- Resistant to organic solvents, alkalis and acids
Conductivity of heat and thermal expansion also have a very favorable effect. X-rays are hardly absorbed and carbon fiber products are non-magnetic but electrically conductive.

The manufacture of carbon fiber

The name rightly indicates that carbon fibers consist almost entirely of pure carbon. 90 percent of them are made from the plastic polyacrylonitrile. One problem in production is the immense amount of energy required:
The temperature for this type of extraction must be 1,300 degrees Celsius. The environment must be oxygen-free so that no unwanted reactions can take place. The carbon fiber cannot burn, but vibrates so strongly that it rids itself of almost all other substances.
The remaining fibers are woven into fabrics or combined with other materials, such as resins. In this way, any shape and size can be created that contain the positive properties of carbon fiber mentioned.
Other processing methods are possible:
- The carbon fibers are chemically stabilized and bind even more strongly. This happens, for example, through oxidation.
- Spinning can create fibers of different thicknesses. These are still washed and stretched.
- Fibers obtained in this way can also be mixed with plastic polymers.
Other manufacturing processes include obtaining rayon, a fiber obtained from wood or other organic materials. The so-called petroleum pitch process is also used, with petroleum being a starting material.
What reads so easily here is the result of long development that is not yet complete. The production of carbon fibers can still be optimized. Some aspects need further improvement, for example:
- Some of the production is unsustainable and expensive, so carbon fiber is mainly used in high-performance and luxury cars, but increasingly also in electric cars.
- Restoration and repair must become more cost-effective.
- Problems with arcing and short circuits must be solved as the material is electrically conductive.
- The controls for high quality, but also the safety standards for the staff in charge of production must be improved and upheld.

Where the carbon fiber is used

As already shown in the initial example, carbon fibers are used in many leisure and sports equipment. But a material several times stronger and twice as stiff as steel has long since made its way into aerospace, construction and engineering. Fuel cells, natural gas storage tanks and wind turbine blades would be unthinkable without carbon fibre. Even oil pipes and deep-sea drilling platforms are made of carbon fibers.
In vehicles, there are certain body parts that are made of carbon fiber. They usually serve to improve the appearance of a vehicle. But more and more possible applications are being added: Mercedes-Benz is planning a carbon fiber steering wheel.
In automobiles, there is currently high pressure for environmental protection, sustainability and CO2 neutrality. Mercedes-Benz wants to achieve the latter by 2039. Especially light materials make it possible under certain circumstances.
But what to do if the production of carbon fibers is more CO2-intensive than that of steel?
The magic word is reuse. For example, there are initial processes that reintegrate waste from production into the process of use. Recycled waste material can also increasingly be used in the manufacture of new carbon fiber components.
Entire components could be used in vehicles that have a high degree of utilization and a shortened service life, such as car-sharing vehicles. This is especially true for structural components.
Project goals are components made of carbon fiber with a service life of up to 30 years, with a possible reuse of 5-7 times. Then the use of carbon fiber components could pay off and still reduce CO2 consumption.
An end to carbon fiber technology is not in sight. Even if some challenges still have to be taken on, the carbon market is booming: while 4.7 billion US dollars were sold in 2019, in 2029 it should be 13.3 billion US dollars.

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