Steel continues to play an important role in new-car construction. However, in recent years, aluminum alloy has also found its way into some vehicles, used on hoods, trunk lids and truck beds. In a quest to make vehicles more lightweight without reducing structural integrity, automakers are also turning to carbon fiber, a material that’s lighter than aluminum, but eight times stronger. The name may sound new, but it was developed by one of the greatest inventors in the world: Thomas Edison.
Carbon Fiber: What It Is
What exactly is this material? As the name suggests, it’s a fiber made from the element carbon. Not only is carbon one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but it’s also the second-most-abundant element in the human body after oxygen.
In 1879, Thomas Edison formed cotton fibers or bamboo slivers and baked them into a proper size to serve as filaments for incandescent light bulbs, which he invented. Cotton and bamboo are composed chiefly of cellulose, a natural linear polymer. When heated the material becomes carbonized, or a carbon copy of the original, with the precise shape retained. Thus, the first light bulbs contained this material.
Carbon Fiber Sheets
Tungsten eventually replaced fiber in light bulbs, but scientists continued to test ways to make carbonized fiber usable in a variety of applications. In 1958, physicist Roger Bacon discovered a way to turn vaporized carbon into a solid, the result being carbon whiskers that were one-tenth the diameter of human hair, but strong enough to resist breaking. Later, the material was made into yarn, which could be weaved together to create sheets.
Fast forward to today and carbonized fiber is widely used in a variety of products, including bicycle frames, helmets, phone cases, guitars, and aircraft and automotive components. As for automobiles, you’ll find the fiber may be used throughout a vehicle — inside and out.
On the inside, the fiber sometimes serves as decorative trim, where polymers, aluminum or other trim pieces were once used. In these instances, the material delivers a high-end look that graces the cabins of such models as the Cadillac ATS-V (gloss-black trim), Lexus LC (door scuff plates) and Maserati GranTurismo Convertible (the component surrounding the instrument panel).
Because the material is so expensive, yet desirable, some choose to decorate their cabins with carbon-fiber-pattern adhesive film, an aftermarket tape.
On the outside, you may find the fiber on some hoods, roofs, door handles, side mirrors and rear spoilers. Interestingly, the 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 offers an optional fiber box. It replaces the standard steel inner panels and the steel floor, saving 62 pounds over a conventional box. GMC says it’ll have the best dent, scratch and corrosion resistance of any box in the full-size pickup truck class, according to Road and Track.
Carbonized fiber isn’t the only composite material finding its way into today’s vehicles. Several have emerged, including epoxy polymer, sandwich composites and glass-based composites. Each helps to reduce weight, improve safety and maximize fuel economy in modern vehicles.
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Photo courtesy of Matthew C. Keegan.
Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.