What is Carbon fiber?
In 1860, Joseph Swan produced carbon fibers for the first time, for use in light bulbs. In 1879, Thomas Edison baked cotton threads or bamboo slivers at high temperatures carbonizing them into an all-carbon fiber filament used in one of the first incandescent light bulbs to be heated by electricity. In 1880, Lewis Latimer developed a reliable carbon wire filament for the incandescent light bulb, heated by electricity.
In 1958, Roger Bacon created high-performance carbon fibers at the Union Carbide Parma Technical Center located outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Those fibers were manufactured by heating strands of rayon until they carbonized. This process proved to be inefficient, as the resulting fibers contained only about 20% carbon and had low strength and stiffness properties. In the early 1960s, a process was developed by Dr. Akio Shindo at Agency of Industrial Science and Technology of Japan, using polyacrylonitrile (PAN) as a raw material. This had produced a carbon fiber that contained about 55% carbon. In 1960 Richard Millington of H.I. Thompson Fiberglas Co. developed a process (US Patent No. 3,294,489) for producing a high carbon content (99%) fiber using rayon as a precursor. These carbon fibers had sufficient strength (modulus of elasticity and tensile strength) to be used as a reinforcement for composites having high strength to weight properties and for high temperature resistant applications.
The high potential strength of carbon fiber was realized in 1963 in a process developed by W. Watt, L. N. Phillips, and W. Johnson at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, Hampshire. The process was patented by the UK Ministry of Defence, then licensed by the British National Research Development Corporation to three companies: Rolls-Royce, who were already making carbon fiber; Morganite; and Courtaulds. Within a few years, after successful use in 1968 of a Hyfil carbon-fiber fan assembly in the Rolls-Royce Conway jet engines of the Vickers VC10, Rolls-Royce took advantage of the new material's properties to break into the American market with its RB-211 aero-engine with carbon-fiber compressor blades. Unfortunately, the blades proved vulnerable to damage from bird impact. This problem and others caused Rolls-Royce such setbacks that the company was nationalized in 1971. The carbon-fiber production plant was sold off to form Bristol Composites.
In the late 1960s, the Japanese took the lead in manufacturing PAN-based carbon fibers. A 1970 joint technology agreement allowed Union Carbide to manufacture the Japan’s Toray Industries product. Morganite decided that carbon-fiber production was peripheral to its core business, leaving Courtaulds as the only big UK manufacturer. Courtelle's water-based inorganic process made the product susceptible to impurities that did not affect the organic process used by other carbon-fiber manufacturers, leading Courtaulds ceasing carbon-fiber production in 1991.
During the 1960s, experimental work to find alternative raw materials led to the introduction of carbon fibers made from a petroleum pitch derived from oil processing. These fibers contained about 85% carbon and had excellent flexural strength. Also, during this period, the Japanese Government heavily supported carbon fiber development at home and several Japanese companies such as Toray, Nippon Carbon, Toho Rayon and Mitsubishi started their own development and production. Since the late 1970s, further types of carbon fiber yarn entered the global market, offering higher tensile strength and higher elastic modulus. For example, T400 from Toray with a tensile strength of 4,000 MPa and M40, a modulus of 400 GPa. Intermediate carbon fibers, such as IM 600 from Toho Rayon with up to 6,000 MPa were developed. Carbon fibers from Toray, Celanese and Akzo found their way to aerospace application from secondary to primary parts first in military and later in civil aircraft as in McDonnell Douglas, Boeing and Airbus planes.