For the last century or so, cars and trucks have predominantly been formed from one material in particular: steel. It's not hard to see why – steel is relatively inexpensive, highly abundant and easy to form into somewhat complex shapes that can be repaired with mostly basic tools.
Recently, though, we've seen an uptick in the amounts of alternative materials used in the automotive industry. The most popular material next to steel would be aluminum, which is lightweight and can be made plenty strong enough for use in our vehicles. On the other hand, it takes a lot more energy to produce and is not as easy to work with as steel. What other alternatives are there?
Carbon fiber. You've surely heard of this wonder material, which has certainly made a recognizable appearance on the automotive scene over the last few years. Carbon fiber is light, strong and can be molded into all kinds of interesting shapes. Plus, it looks really cool... but it's not all lollipops and rainbows. Click past the jump to read more about carbon fiber's many promises, and its pitfalls.
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So, um, what's carbon fiber?
We'll let the all-knowing Wiki explain:
Carbon fiber (alternatively called carbon fibre, graphite fiber, or carbon graphite) is a material consisting of extremely thin fibers about 0.005–0.010 mm in diameter and composed mostly of carbon atoms. The carbon atoms are bonded together in microscopic crystals that are more or less aligned parallel to the long axis of the fiber... Several thousand carbon fibers are twisted together to form a yarn, which may be used by itself or woven into a fabric.
Fine. How 'bout in English? Think of a piece of cloth from the fabric store. The same way that cloth is woven together, thin strands of nearly pure carbon are twisted into yarns and then into fabrics. Obviously, you can't make a car from fabric (unless you're BMW, of course), so what do you do with it?
Sheets of carbon fiber fabric are layered into a specific shape, generally by hand using a complex mold, and a polymer is applied that binds the carbon fiber fabric together. More often that not, that polymer is an epoxy that hardens through heating, pressure or both. After the piece is fully cured, it's removed from the mold and is ready for use. Clear as mud? Perfect, let's move on.
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What's so great about carbon fiber anyway?
As we touched on in the opening paragraphs, parts fashioned with carbon fiber are inherently light and strong. That's perfect for cars and trucks (as well as airplanes, boats, bicycles...) as it allows a structure that's safe, has good driving dynamics and is significantly lighter than the same piece from either steel or aluminum. As you likely know, a lightweight automobile can make use of a less powerful engine and therefore tends to get much better fuel mileage.
Great! Why don't we make all of our cars from carbon fiber?
Well, it's not quite that simple. Carbon fiber is strong and light, but it's also expensive and takes much longer to fashion into usable parts than most other competing materials.
Further, while steel and sometimes aluminum can be reshaped and repaired after an accident, that's not really true of carbon fiber, which may fail spectacularly when finally pushed beyond its limits. When damaged, carbon fiber can splinter into a number of sharp, dangerous bits that can't easily be reassembled to make a whole unit.
Finally, when it comes time to replace the automobile, there are a number of relatively simple steps that can be taken to recycle plastic, steel and aluminum. Carbon fiber, though, isn't so easily recycled and reused into new automotive parts.
So, where do we go from here?
That's the $64,000 question. It certainly seems likely that carbon fiber will continue to be used to make high performance and race cars for the foreseeable future due to its laudable strength-to-weight characteristics. That said, we're probably still quite a number of years away from seeing mass-produced cars sold on dealer lots made predominantly from this wonder material. In the meantime, we continue to look forward to new advancements in technology to lower the cost and time associated with creating high-quality pieces from carbon fiber along with any new materials that can help reduce the prodigious weight of modern automobiles.
If you have your a topic you'd like us to cover in a future Greenlings column, leave a comment on this post or send us a note.