Carbon Fiber: Like Fire and the Wheel

 

Manufacturers in Australia are extremely excited about the fact that engineers in their own country are now able to produce carbon fiber. To hear them talk, you would think Australia just discovered fire or the wheel. But this is carbon fiber. It has been around since the 1960s. So why is it such a big deal that Australian companies can now make it? And for that matter, why are there so few countries in the world where, what is arguably the most popular composite, is it made?

Carbon fiber is considered an ‘exotic’ manufacturing material because it is hard to come by and quite expensive. It is not a stretch to say that when a new country finally has access to domestically produced carbon fiber materials, it is a big deal. To understand why, consider what Ward’s Auto contributor Alan Harman wrote in a November 27 piece:

“Carbon fiber is made only by a handful of manufacturers globally, each of them using their own secret, patented formulas.”

For Australian manufacturers to now have the capability of making their own carbon fiber materials is truly akin to discovering fire and the wheel, at least from a manufacturing perspective. It really is a big deal.

  • Expensive to Make

At the Utah facilities of Rock West Composites, they take immense pride in offering customers a wide variety of composite materials ranging from carbon fiber tubing to prepregs. But no item on their product list comes cheaply. Carbon fiber and other composites are, quite frankly, expensive to make. It’s not so much the materials as it is the manufacturing process.

According to a 2017 white paper from Infosys, the current cost of producing carbon fiber is hovering between $15 and $18 per kilogram. That’s between $7.50 and $9 per pound. And that’s just the starting cost. The price tag can go up depending on how a particular composite is manufactured. If that price means nothing to you, consider this: the automotive industry wants to see carbon fiber fall to $5 per pound before they consider it competitive for their use.

It turns out that it’s all about the manufacturing process. Before you can produce carbon fiber tubing or sheets, you have to begin with the fiber itself. That fiber starts as a polymer consisting of multiple carbon atoms bound together in long strings. Turning those long strings into usable carbon fiber requires two processes that actually reduce the volume by half. Finished carbon fiber is half the volume of the starting product, meaning you’re already losing in the manufacturing process.

  • Expensive Manufacturing

In addition to losing half the volume to produce carbon fiber, the actual cost of manufacturing is expensive as well. The two-step process includes a massive amount of heat that is used for both oxidation and material stabilization. Oxidation requires feeding the base material through a series of extremely hot ovens that consume a tremendous amount of energy. Stabilization requires a second set of ovens heated in excess of 1,000° C.

Of course, there are other costs involved as well. Manufacturers need to safely handle emissions, fabricate finished carbon fiber into usable materials, pay for labor and equipment, and so on. It all amounts to an extremely expensive process with a hefty built-in price tag.

Now that you know more about carbon fiber, it should be easy to understand why Australian manufacturers are thrilled to finally be able to produce carbon fiber materials domestically. That should cut their costs significantly. To them, their newly found carbon fiber capabilities are akin to finally getting access to fire and the wheel.