The Wild File: Carbon Fiber

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Nov 15, 2010
Outside Magazine

Carbon is the sixth-most-common element, but while pure carbon in nature can take the form of both diamonds and graphite, you'll never find carbon fiber in the ground. The high-tensile gossamer strands—which are reinforced with epoxy to make pricey carbon-fiber bikes, fly rods, and tennis rackets—are formed under extreme temperatures in an artificial, inert-gas atmosphere. "The capital investment to make those strands is huge," says Luc Callahan, engineering manager for road bikes at Specialized. "Like a billion dollars huge." Indeed, there are only a handful of companies capable of making carbon fiber—all of them focused primarily on aerospace. Once you get beyond startup costs, the raw material isn't cheap, either. Unlike diamonds produced for industrial use, carbon fiber starts not with graphite but with a tough-to-brew chemical polymer called Polyacrylonitrile. "Compared with steel and aluminum, the inputs are much more expensive," says Callahan. And, finally, there's the market. Since carbon fiber's development, in the late 1950s, demand for it has been set by the aerospace industry. Sports manufacturers get the scraps and don't even have access to the best military stuff. "We could get 50 percent stronger in some grades," says Callahan.

By the Numbers
75 Percentage of the carbon-fiber supply used by the transportation, infrastructure, and electronics industries
7 Percentage of the supply now used to fabricate wind turbines
65:35 Ratio of carbon fabric to epoxy resin needed to produce a stable composite in a typical bicycle
42 Man-hours a frame takes to make
$250,000 Cost of the molds and tools for the production run of a single carbon-fiber bike model

Filed To: Science