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What Is Carbon Fiber

A Beginners Guide to The Lightweight Composite Material

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Carbon Fiber Cloth

Carbon fiber cloth used in composites

Creative Commons: Erik Charlton via Flickr

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. Familiar products made of carbon fiber include:

  • 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
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