Carbon composite

Carbon composites are uniquely strong, yet lightweight materials. They exhibit a high strength-to-weight ratio and this has led to the commercial development and use within; aerospace, automotive and energy.


Carbon Composites – Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) properties

CFRP consists of a matrix and a reinforcement. The matrix is an epoxy resin, binding the reinforcements, giving CFRP its strength and rigidity. The directional strength properties depend on the proportion of the carbon fibers relative to the polymer and the lay.

The fracture toughness is governed by; debonding of the carbon fiber to polymer matrix, fiber pull-out, and delamination. The brittle fracture mechanics are a considerable issue. PEEK exhibits greater toughness with similar elastic modulus and tensile strength, although this manufacturing process is very expensive.

CFRP is also limited by its unpredictable fatigue limits, making it difficult to utilise within a design window. In critical cyclic-loading applications, safety margins are over stated to extend service life.


Carbon Fiber Manufacture

In manufacturing, the carbon fiber precursor is polyacrylonitrile, rayon, or petroleum pitch. The precursor is first spun into filament yarns. The polymer filament yarns are then heated, producing a unidirectional sheet. These sheets are layered onto each other. The matrix has a significant effect on the properties of the final product material.

CFRP parts are generally created with a single layer of carbon fabric, backed with fiberglass. A chopper gun is used to create these composite parts. Once a thin shell is created out of carbon fiber, the gun cuts rolls of fiberglass into short lengths and sprays resin at the same time, so that the fiberglass and resin are mixed simultaneously. Manufacturing methods include moulding, vacuum bagging and filament winding.


Carbon fiber monocoque manufacture

McLaren commissioned Hercules Aerospace to create the tub with a mould. In contrast, Lotus opted to build in-house. The McLaren layed up the plies of carbon fiber around a male mould before applying an alloy honeycomb and a second carbon skin using unidirectional (UD) carbon fibre prepreg tipe. Lotus opted for using folded sheets of composite material using sheet aluminium and aluminium honeycomb.

Two moulds were bonded together to create the chassis. The hard points for the suspension mountings needed to be accurate and as they were to be attached to the inner skin and bulkhead, the male mould was used to lay up the inner skin, so removing any variance in sandwich thickness form the final suspension geometry.

Carbon Fibre in Motor racing

F1 teams, like McLaren constructed and tested these lightweight materials in the 70’s and 80’s. The MP4/1 racing car was made from carbon resulting in an extremely lightweight car weighing 585 kg. Today, all F1 cars are made extensively from the material.

McLaren also led the way with their road cars. In 1994 McLaren unveiled the McLaren F1. It was the fastest motor car until 2005 with a top speed recorded at 241mph. All hypercars are now made from carbon fiber and it is slowly dripping down into the sports car and family segments, in many cases as optional extras such as wings and lightweight bonnets. BMW have been using carbon within their coupe roofs for more than a decade.


Applications – commercial and domestic

The aerospace industry exploits the materials from the Airbus A350 wing spars and fuselage components (CFRP), and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which uses approximately 50%.

CFRPs are extensively used in motor racing. Low weight is essential for high-performance cars. Manufacturers have also developed methods to give carbon fiber pieces strength in a certain direction. Omnidirectional weaves apply strength in all directions. This type of carbon fiber assembly is most widely used in a monocoque chassis.


Carbon Fiber vs Aluminium debate – bicycle application

Carbon can be engineered to be stiff in certain directions and compliant in others. Carbon bikes can be comfy over rough terrains whilst retaining stiffness. Carbon dampens vibration better than aluminum.
The gap has closed in recent years down to progress with aluminium (the manufacturing process). Hydroforming aluminum allows variation of the shape of tubing to achieve laterally stiff and vertically compliant ride characteristics. The process effectively allows thinner forming in areas that are appropriate and thicker forming, when specified. Modern aluminium frames are almost as complaint on roads.
Weight is a key property in racing bikes. Expensive grade, high-modulus carbon produces unrivalled bikes, in respect ti their strength. Racing manufacturers now produce carbon road bikes that are <8kg. Carbon is susceptible to damage, but it can be easily repaired, unlike with an aluminum frame. Cost wise, aluminum is much cheaper. 


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