What is Carbon Fiber?
Carbon fiber is a long, thin strand of pure carbon that is flexible and strong. It is made from precursor chemicals, such as polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which are heat treated and oxidized.
What is a Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer (CFRP) Composite?
A carbon fiber reinforced polymer composite is a material that is as much as five times stronger than steel, but weighs 60 percent less than steel. CFRP composites are made by weaving carbon fiber into a cloth, encapsulating the cloth in resin or plastic, and heat-treating it. The U.S. Department of Energy believes that carbon materials have the potential to replace steel in many applications, including vehicles and energy technologies.
CFRP Composites: A Building Block for Efficiency
CFRP composites’ ultra light weight and high strength enable efficiency in many technologies. Automobiles and aircraft will require less fuel due to decreased weight. For example, a car that has its steel components replaced with carbon fiber would reduce its fuel consumption by 30 percent, which would result in consumer savings on gas and car parts and would reduce harmful gas emissions. In wind power generation, lighter, longer turbine blades can increase power output and ease the burden of transporting large blades.
CFRP composites are currently used in select products such as sports equipment, like golf clubs and mountain bikes, or high-end vehicles like the BMW i3. Demand for carbon fiber is predicted to double from 2014 to 2020, growing to over 100,000 tons by 2020. Market analysts project the CFRP composite materials market will grow to up to $25.2 billion by 2020, increasing at a rate of nearly 12 percent per year. In the automotive carbon fiber market, where lower weight but high strength corresponds to greater fuel efficiency, explosive innovation and growth are expected. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that by 2030, CFRP composites will be the status quo for performance and sustainability standards in the automotive industry.
CFRP composites cost about $15 per pound, which can range from 1.5 to 5 times the cost of steel. While the cost of carbon fiber is more expensive than steel, CFRP composite vehicle owners will save up to $5,000 on fuel costs due to 50 to 70 percent weight reduction. Considering the life cycle cost of a good, such as fuel or maintenance, durable goods like vehicles and air transport may have lower life cycle costs when manufactured with CFRP composites, despite a higher upfront purchase price. Although CFRP composite goods are currently relatively expensive, the cost of the material is projected to fall dramatically—up to 67 percent by 2030—as new research reduces the cost of input materials and manufacturing processes.
Jobs from Carbon Fiber
CFRP composite jobs will be in both large and small companies, which will create a demand for workers to design new end uses for materials, engineer more efficient manufacturing techniques, and manufacture the composite material. CFRP manufacturing is a sophisticated process, mostly done by technicians. Techniques to master include wet layup, resin infusion, laminating, cutting, trimming, and drilling. Knowledge in areas such as measurement, math, mechanics, fluid power and dynamics, electrical systems, chemistry, manufacturing processes and control, and lean manufacturing are key for industry professionals.