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Carbon fiber has been making waves in high-performance applications for decades. It’s lighter, stronger and stiffer than steel for its weight and is the material of choice for aircraft, automobiles, lithium batteries, spacecraft and sporting goods. Carbon fiber is also non-flammable, impervious to corrosion and resists electromagnetic interference.
In its solid state, carbon is a hard and brittle substance. When woven into a matrix, however, carbon becomes strong and flexible. The microscopic crystalline structure of carbon atoms allows it to form long chains that are tightly interlocked, creating a material with exceptional strength in comparison to its weight.
The history of carbon fiber goes back to Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, which used cotton thread or bamboo slivers as filaments that were heated to glow. Edison used these materials because of their ductility and low melting points, but they were not as strong or stiff for their size as metals such as iron and steel.
To develop a high-performance carbon fiber, researchers needed to find a precursor material with a much higher melting point. They began with cellulose, the natural linear polymer that makes up cotton and bamboo. By putting stress on the mesophase, scientists were able to align the molecules into a single direction before heating them, which made them graphitizable.
Today, most commercial carbon fibers are produced from polyacrylonitrile (PAN), a synthetic linear polymer made up of repeating units of acrylic acid. PAN has a very high melting point at about 2000 degC and is capable of becoming graphitizable when treated in the correct conditions. Using a process called needle-bonding or hot pressing, carbon fibers can be made from this material.