Carbon fibre was first developed in the late 1950s by a scientist at a Union Carbide facility in the US. It was actually a by-product of other experiments and they found that they had created a fibre with about 20% carbon in it. It was also less than a 10th the diameter of a human hair!
What the scientist had done was heat Rayon, a cellulose based fibre originally made in the 1860s by French scientists who wanted to make artificial silk. Rayon is made out of wood pulp and other “green” substances. The resulting research then found that using other polymers gave them a 55% carbon based fibre and by the early 1970s this had increased to 80% carbon which gave the fibres incredible strength and they were very lightweight.
Zoltek, a carbon fibre manufacturer, describe the manufacturing process on their web site:
They mix acrylonitrile plastic powder with methyl acrylate to form a polyacrylonitrile plastic. This is then spun into a fibre, treated with chemicals, washed and then stretched to the required diameter. From here, the fibres are stabilised by heating them with oxygen to over 200ºC for up to 2 hours. Then the stabilised fibre is carbonised by heating it to over 1,000ºC without oxygen. It uses the existing oxygen that bonded the fibres during the stabilisation process. This process also bonds the carbon molecules together in the direction of the fibre – it is the direction of the molecules that gives it its strength.
With the improved strength found in the 1970s, the auto makers started to look at the product. Up until then it was used in aerospace and military products as it was hugely expensive to manufacture. Ford built a concept car completely out of carbon fibre in the late 1970s.
It was John Barnard, the McLaren designer that first used carbon fibre in F1. His early 1980s designs needed extra strength but also required to be lightweight. Ground Effect cars were coming into being and the designers needed something that could withstand the pressure and aluminium wasn’t strong enough. So Barnard used carbon fibre with an aluminium honeycomb.
Barnard’s work pioneered the use of carbon fibre in racing prototypes and most teams now have a tie up with a carbon fibre manufacturer or company who specialises in making components from high tech materials.
Nowadays, carbon reinforced plastics are found throughout the auto industry as well as motor sports and other sporting gear. I even have carbon fibre panels on my Ducati. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has a fuselage made of carbon fibre and the manufacturer, Toray Industries, a Japanese company, is planning to ramp up production to 30,000 tonnes a year so that they can sell more to car manufacturers in the form of panels and other components such as drive shafts. They plan to offer the material to reduce the weight of the heavier components on a vehicle. In addition to Boeing, Toray also supply Airbus for their new aircraft as well.
Toray is on an expansion strategy to increase it’s dominance having bought Zoltek (the US manufacturer) in 2014 and Delta Group plus Composite Materials both in Italy during 2015 to support more auto manufacturers. It is likely that any carbon fibre on your vehicle comes from a Toray subsidiary!