The Carbon Fiber Formula

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The carbon fiber formula

This is a composite material made from a combination of a resin and reinforcement, or dispersed phase, based on a polymer known as carbon fiber (whose raw materials are usually called polyacrylonitrile). The resin is usually thermoset, and the dispersed phase can be any of several plastics.

The fiber is made by a complicated process that is part chemical and part mechanical. The first step is to spin long strands of polyacrylonitrile into fibers. The strands are then heat-treated to a high temperature without allowing contact with oxygen, so that the non-carbon atoms are expelled.

When the fibers are hot, they bind together to form a dense, stiff, and extremely strong material. The resulting material is very rigid and brittle, much like steel, but it has far better strength to weight ratio.

There are two main types of carbon fibers: multi-wall and unidirectional. The multi-wall type is made from layers of graphite woven together, while the unidirectional variety is made from a single layer of graphite.

Unlike steel, carbon fiber does not yield under load. However, it does bend.

This is a key difference between the properties of carbon fiber and those of other materials, such as steel and aluminum. The bending stiffness of carbon fiber is proportional to its cross-sectional moment of inertia and its material modulus of elasticity. This makes it a great choice for parts that need to be very stiff and resistant to compression or crush.