Carbon fiber: what is it, how is it made and why does everyone want it on their car?
What is carbon fiber made of?
Carbon fiber, or carbon fiber, is made of very thin fibers of carbon. A carbon fiber is thinner than a human hair and is extra powerful when woven together. Weaving thousands of fibers like a blanket creates a mat. You can put such a fiber mat in a mold and “bake” it through a special process, making it take the shape of the mold.
You can make all kinds of parts from carbon fiber, from mirror caps to rear spoilers. In many modern super- and hypercars, even the entire chassis is made of carbon fiber. This was already the case with the 1992 McLaren F1. Hypercar maker Koenigsegg even makes rims out of carbon fiber. You can see how they do it in this video. You can also get carbon fiber wheels from other automakers more and more often these days, like Porsche, for example .
Strong and light
Carbon fiber is a very strong material, making it ideal for parts that are subjected to heavy forces, such as rear wings and front splitters. Compared to steel, carbon fiber is five times stronger and twice as stiff. In addition, it is much lighter than steel, does not rust, and does not expand when hot. Thanks to these properties, carbon fiber composites are highly sought after in the automotive (sports) industry.
How did carbon fiber come to be?
Carbon fiber is already a fairly old material. It originated in 1879 when inventor Thomas Edison baked cotton yarns at a high temperature, carbonizing them. By 1958, this process was first attempted with carbon, creating what is now carbon fiber. At the time, the percentage of carbon was still low and therefore it was not yet as strong as today’s carbon fiber.
The production process of carbon fiber
Today, carbon fiber is made through a process that is part mechanical and part chemical. Carbon fiber is made from long strands of molecules held together by carbon atoms. These strands are heated to about 3,000 degrees in an oxygen-free environment. This prevents the strands from burning. During this process, called carbonization, all non-carbon atoms are pushed out of the chains, creating a tremendously strong material: carbon fiber.
In addition to the automotive industry, carbon fiber is used to make lightweight (bicycle) bicycles, airplane wings, but also, for example, lightweight tubes for fishing rods. Against all the advantages of carbon fiber, there is also a major disadvantage. You cannot easily repair carbon fiber parts if they break or become damaged. Carbon fiber is also a fairly expensive material. So should you drive your front splitter to pieces on a sill, you may want to pull out your wallet. Because it is expensive and quite exclusive material, a lot of fake carbon fiber is also made. You even come across carbon-look elements in and on normal family cars these days.