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Carbon Fiber


Carbon fiber, as the name implies, is material made from fibers of carbon. Despite being just one fourth of the specific gravity of iron, carbon fiber is incredibly strong, around ten times stronger than iron in terms of specific strength. This strength makes it an ideal lightweight substitute for conventional metallic materials and it has been attracting a great deal of attention as such.

The commercialization of carbon fiber can be traced back to 1961, by Dr. Akio Shindo at the Osaka National Research Institute of the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology, part of the then Ministry of Industry and Trade of Japan. He established the basic principle of carbon fibers, using acrylic fibers. After that, in 1971, a Japanese company became the first in the world to start high-volume production of carbon fiber. Today, Toray is the recognized world leader in the carbon fiber industry as the number one producer of polyacrylonitrile (PAN)-based carbon fibers, in terms of performance, quality, and volume.

The Role of Carbon Fiber
Global warming brought about by rapid population growth and industrialization. The rising cost of petroleum as the world’s principal energy source. Diversifying needs for high-performance materials suitable for ever more advanced science and technology. These are just some of the global-scale problems faced today that we must solve as quickly as possible. Light and strong, carbon fiber is seen as having a wide range of potential problem-solving applications as we seek resolutions to global issues of concern.

At present, the carbon fiber market is valued at around 150–200 billion Japanese yen, with the likelihood of further expansion. Current prediction place total market value at 500 billion Japanese yen in five years time, and 2.0 trillion in a decade. Below, we take a look at the various applications for carbon fibers now and in the near future.

(1) Automobiles
The use of carbon fibers in this field began with racing cars. Here, the advantageous properties of carbon fiber – not just lightweight, but also safe as a result of high strength and high rigidity – have been verified. After this, carbon fiber use spread to the manufacturing of luxury cars, and today carbon fiber is used in any number of parts, as listed below. The use of carbon fiber in general car manufacturing is also increasing rapidly.

Carbon fiber used in: bonnets/hoods, spoilers, propeller shafts, radiator core supports, F1 machine parts, body panels.

(2) Ships and Vessels
Compared to glass fiber reinforced polymer (GFRP), the material that has been traditionally used in ships and marine vessels, carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) can result in a total weight saving of around 30%. A more lightweight ship means improvements in speed, which in turn enables better fuel efficiency.

In addition, CFRP also excels in vibrational damping performance. By using CFRP in the base of the engine and the auxiliary machines (e.g. pumps), the natural frequency (resonance point) of the ship’s hull increases, making it possible to reduce the hull vibration caused by the operation of the engine or auxiliary machinery.

CFRP has another distinct advantage: superior electrical conductivity. For example, using CFRP to cover the wall surfaces of radio shacks can help to provide electromagnetic shielding of more than 40 dB.

(3) Social Infrastructure
Carbon fiber is lightweight and strong, but in addition it has outstanding properties that make it an ideal material for civil engineering and construction. For example, it is possible to carry out construction by hardening carbon fiber fabric on the work site through resin impregnation. This means that heavy equipment usually required to attach metallic plates becomes unnecessary. Another advantage is that carbon fiber does not rust, so it degrades less quickly than metals in coastal and other environments that cause rapid rusting. These properties make it an ideal material for the repair and reinforcement of construction related to social infrastructure.

(4) Space industry
Satellites, robots, space shuttles…massive amounts of energy are required to launch such bodies into space. The bodies that we launch must also be constructed from materials able to withstand the extreme conditions of space, much harsher than those of the Earth’s atmosphere, including strong cosmic radiation, ultraviolet light, and acute temperature changes.

Carbon fiber is tough, light, and helps to improve energy efficiency. It has a coefficient of thermal expansion that is around ten times smaller than that of metal, meaning excellent dimensional stability in the face of temperature fluctuations. The launch frequency of communications satellites is expected to rise in the future. This will doubtless mean an expansion in the scope of vital applications for PAN-based carbon fibers.

(5) Aerospace
CFRP are already used in the development of high-performance aircraft, principally to realize lighter weight craft. Secondary benefits are also being seen, however, such as the reduction in assembly processes. In aircraft, carbon fiber-reinforced plastic is used in vertical tail fins, tail cones, fuselage tail sections, horizontal tails, pressure bulkheads, engine cowls, flap track panels, center wings, forward wing edges, outside flaps, and main wing ribs.

Carbon fiber cannot be used in the high temperature parts of the engine due to technical issues, but it is used in the fan containment case and blades of engines. The utilization of carbon fiber in the engine region is likely to continue to develop rapidly in the near future, as fuel costs and the reduction of CO2 emission levels are placed increasingly under the spotlight.

(6) Wind Power Generation
The world’s supply of natural resources is being depleted, which is pushing up prices. In the future, there is the risk that some resources will be depleted although. This situation has created the need for energy diversification. One method now available is the supply of electricity through wind power generation. The blades on wind power generators have traditionally been constructed from glass fiber composite materials. In order to enhance generation efficiency and thereby enable the large-scale generation of electricity from limited areas, these blades need to made larger. The strength and weight of glass fiber composite materials, however, have hindered this vital enlargement. Simply making these glass fiber blades on a bigger scale would have increased the risk that the blades flexed and warped when rotating or were bent by the wind, potentially causing the blades to smash against the main shaft and be damaged. Carbon fiber composite materials, which are superior in rigidity, can be used here as an alternative to glass fiber composite materials. As a result, carbon fiber is currently used in the blades of wind power generators around the world.

(7) Mechanical Parts, Medical Equipment, IT
Carbon fiber is also a vital material in the manufacturing of advanced medical technology. In addition to being lightweight and strong, carbon fiber also has extremely high X-ray transmissivity. This makes it an ideal material for use in top boards for medical equipment.

Japanese Carbon Fiber Manufacturers and Products

The Toray Group accounts for 40% of global carbon fiber production. It began full-scale production of carbon fibers around 40 years ago, and has since established carbon fiber composite materials as a strategic business segment. It is a core part of the Green Innovation Business Expansion project, and is being expanded as a vertical integration business segment.

Production applications are diverse, from raw yarns to processed items, and include yarns, clothes, and pellets.

May 16, 2011

About the author
Kaori Shimada is a reporter for Japanest NIPPON
( Toray Industries, Inc. )