The development of “graphite whiskers” in 1958 by Roger Bacon of Union Carbide’s Parma Technical Center (now GrafTech International) is considered to be a national historic chemical landmark by the American Chemical Society. Bacon’s work as a recent Ph.D. recipient, along with that of other researchers, was the basis for today’s carbon fiber composite technology.
Only one year following Bacon’s achievement, the earliest high-performance carbon fiber composite was developed in 1959, using a precursor of rayon. A composite is a fortified material that consists of more than one element. Today, nearly 90% of carbon fibers are manufactured by the use of PAN (polyacrylonitrile). The structure of carbon fiber, as well as it’s properties, gives insight as to its benefits.
1. Carbon Fiber Structure.
The American Chemical Society describes the structure of carbon fibers as a graphite polymer. In graphite, carbon atoms are organized into large sheets of six-sided rings resembling chicken wire. The graphite whiskers developed by Bacon were graphite sheets that were curled like a scroll, the sheets of graphite being unbroken throughout the filament’s full length.
2. How Strong is Carbon Fiber?
Carbon fiber composites that are PAN-based have as much as 1,000 kilopounds per square inch (ksi) of strength and are extremely stiff. They’re also approximately 10 times stronger than steel and weigh nearly half as much.
3. Dimensions of Carbon Fiber.
A single carbon fiber has a diameter of approximately 5 to 10 microns. This makes it only slightly wider than silk spun by a spider.
Today, carbon fibers are a crucial element in the manufacturing of materials for the aerospace industry. They are also used for many other purposes, such as brakes for aircraft, manufacturing sporting equipment, making lithium batteries, airplane manufacturing, and the fortification of materials used in the construction industry.
With so many practical uses, the market for carbon fiber composite continues to grow, and Lucintel anticipates that by the year 2023, the market will have a value of approximately $38 billion. These statistics emphasize the impact of Roger Bacon’s discovery on today’s technology. For this reason, it stands as a great scientific achievement in the field of chemistry.