Carbon fiber is one of the stiffest reinforcing materials available for polymer composites. It is made from tightly bonded carbon in the form of graphite and is commonly used with epoxy in applications that require high strength and stiffness such as aerospace and automotive applications and sports equipment.

Carbon composites are anisotropic, meaning that their properties are different depending on the direction of the component’s geometry. This makes them a unique material that can deliver higher stiffness than metals at the same weight, opening up opportunities in product design.

The first carbon fiber was invented in 1879 by Thomas Edison, who baked cotton threads and bamboo slivers at high temperatures to convert them into carbon filaments for his incandescent light bulb. This early carbonization was inefficient, resulting in low modulus and strength. The modern era of carbon fibers began in 1956 when Union Carbide opened the Parma Technical Center outside Cleveland, Ohio. There they developed a new production process that enabled much higher-modulus carbon fibers, which were used to make the first commercial carbon fiber bicycles.

Today most carbon fiber is manufactured using precursors such as polyacrylonitrile or petroleum pitch. The exact composition of these varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but all have long strings of molecules that are bound together by carbon atoms. The precursors are heated in a series of stages, during which they are subjected to a variety of chemical treatments to modify the properties of the resulting carbon fibers.

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