Paper airplanes glued together are fun but not something anybody would actually fly on. But that is essentially what modern jet aircraft are. Carbon fiber is essentially threads glued together into a fabric and turned into the bodies of aircraft, the wings, cars, bicycles, and countless other objects.
Carbon Fiber is stronger and lighter than metal though common sense makes it sound more like fabric than anything that takes enormous stress. It enables jets, giant windmills, lightweight bicycles, and a myriad of other modern things.
Carbon fiber is high in stiffness, has high tensile strength, has a low weight-to-strength ratio, is high in chemical resistance, tolerates excessive heat, and has low thermal expansion.
Edison was the first to discover carbon fiber in the late 1800s while searching for a filament for his lightbulb. However, he never adequately isolated or understood the potential beyond lightbulbs, a common problem with early innovators.
Roger Bacon discovered modern carbon fiber in 1958 as a young researcher, calling it “graphite whiskers.” He realized the material was special because of its strength and flexibility. However, at the time, he couldn’t think of any real-life applications.
Bacon’s discovery was accidental. He was spraying material through an electric arc and realized it turned into a series of threads, a glass shower. These turned out to be the carbon threads that, when woven together with a laminate, make up modern carbon fiber.
“… they had amazing properties,” said Bacon. “They were only a tenth of the diameter of a human hair, but you could bend them and kink them and they weren’t brittle. They were long filaments of perfect graphite.”
Eventually, in 1963, Union Carbide worked to commercialize the strong fibers. In 1970, Japanese researchers refined Bacon’s fiber into modern Polyacrylonitrile “PAN” fibers, the carbon fibers used to build airframes, bicycles, and certain auto parts.
Research continues on ever-faster ways to produce this high-strength lightweight material.