Carbon fibers today


All commercial carbon fibers produced today are based on rayon, PAN, or pitch. Rayon-based fibers were the first in commercial production in 1959, and they led the way to the earliest applications, which were primarily military. PAN-based fibers have replaced rayon-based fibers in most applications, because they are superior in several respects, notably in tensile strength. Fibers from PAN fueled the explosive growth of the carbon fiber industry since 1970, and they are now used in a wide array of applications such as aircraft brakes, space structures, military and commercial planes, lithium batteries, sporting goods, and structural reinforcement in construction materials. In the late 1970s, Union Carbide formed a separate division as its primary carbon fiber producer; the business has since been sold to Amoco and then to Cytec, which is among a group of major carbon fiber manufacturers that spans the globe.

Pitch-based fibers are unique in their ability to achieve ultrahigh Young’s modulus and thermal conductivity and, therefore, have found an assured place in critical military and space applications. But their high cost has kept production to a minimum; only a few Japanese companies in addition to Cytec are currently making commercial mesophase fibers. A lower modulus, non-graphitized mesophase-pitch-based fiber, which is much lower in cost, is used extensively for aircraft brakes. Conoco recently announced plans to start a plant predicated on making large quantities of mesophase fibers at very low cost, with potential for going into applications like construction, cement reinforcement, and others where large volumes and low prices would be necessary. But Conoco chose not to go forward with the project because of technical problems and market issues.

The cost of making carbon fibers has been reduced drastically in the last 20 years, and researchers are bringing that cost down every day. As they do, many of the applications once considered impossible will become reality. Carbon fibers are used sparingly in automotive applications, but someday entire body panels may be made from them. All high speed aircraft have carbon fiber composites in their brakes and other critical parts, and in many aircraft they are — used as the primary structures and skins for entire planes. Carbon fibers could even be used to develop earthquake-proof buildings and bridges.

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In May 2002, UCAR Carbon changed its name to GrafTech International. The Parma Technical Center, now a part of GrafTech, is currently in use as the Corporate Research and Development Laboratory.


 

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The first carbon fibers | Bacon’s breakthrough | Flexible fibers from rayon | Polyacrylonitrile: a concurrent development | Singer’s taffy pull | Carbon fibers today | Landmark designation | Acknowledgments

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