Carbon Fiber Textiles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you need something that can withstand high heat, lots of friction or exposure to pressure? Try carbon fibers! In this lesson you'll learn the history, manufacturing process, and uses of carbon fiber textiles.

What Are Carbon Fiber Textiles?

What do light bulbs and space suits have in common? They're both connected to the history and use of fibers made from carbon!

Carbon fiber textiles (CFTs) are a synthetic, or man-made. Making them requires a combination of chemical and mechanical processes, which means you'll never find them in nature. They are a twentieth century invention; their creation as textiles came in the United States in the 1960s, where they grew out of Cold War defense initiatives and the developing space program.

But the history of carbon fibers is much older. Thomas Edison first patented a process to make them in 1879 when he was searching for an effective, long-lasting filament to use in light bulbs. He wanted a fiber that could be heated and still keep its shape. Carbon fiber textiles are strong and lightweight, but they're not easy to make.

Making Carbon Fiber Textiles

So, how are CFTs made? The process starts with a base fiber, which in the industry is called a precursor. The precursor is sometimes rayon, polyacrylonitrile fibers (an acrylic resin sometimes listed by its acronym PAN), or petroleum residues.

These materials are slow to burn and making them into fibers requires heat. First, they are stretched while being subjected to temperatures of around 200 - 300 degrees Celsius. Then the tension is released (so they are no longer being stretched) and they are heated at very high temperatures, sometimes as high as 2000 degrees Celsius.

If they are graphite fibers, which are stronger than regular carbon, they are heated to 3000 degrees Celsius! This forces the fibers to cast off most non-carbon molecules like oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. The result is bundles of parallel continuous fibers called tow. The fibers are bound into filaments that are spun into thread used to make cloth.

Example of a carbon fiber

That's a lot of steps! As you might suspect, carbon fiber filaments are expensive to make, so they are often used in composites, materials made of more than one fiber. Sometimes they are bonded with epoxy.

How Are Carbon Fiber Textiles Used?

CFTs are used in industries like aerospace (meaning airplanes and spaceships), military, and motorsports. One good example is Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests. CTFs are also found in liners and reinforcing materials for civil engineering projects like roads and bridges.

They also have marine uses in ship and oceangoing vessels, as well as heavy duty sails. They even find their way into electronics and appliances. Another industry that uses carbon fiber textiles is motorsports, where you can find them in things like motorcycle racing gloves.

Curved surface of a carbon fiber textile
carbon fiber textile

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