CARBON FIBRE COMPOSITES HAVE DOMINATED THE PERFORMANCE CAR ARENA FOR DECADES, BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS THIS WONDER MATERIAL?
You’ll struggle to find any modern supercar that doesn’t make use of carbon fibre – or, to give it its full name, carbon fibre reinforced polymer. So what is this wonder material that is used in the fastest cars both on road and track?
Carbon fibre is a composite, meaning that it is 'composed' of more than one material. Strands of woven carbon are suspended in a polymer matrix, often a thermoset epoxy resin. The resulting composite is around a fifth lighter than steel but is equally strong (or even stronger).
One drawback of this technology is carbon fibre’s low maximum operating temperature compaed to other materials, such as metals. It’s possible to play with the crystalline structure of the polymer to increase heat resistance, but carbon fibre still can’t match steel, which melts at around 1300C. Epoxy, meanwhile, reverts to a rubbery state at around 180C. Interestingly, the carbon fibres themselves can withstand up to 3500C, so it’s the polymer matrix that holds back carbon fibre composites.
Another downside is that carbon fibre can cost up to 20 times more than steel to manufacture. But more affordable and better performing composites are just around the corner.
Bugatti's EB110 was the first road car to use carbon fibre for its chassis
The first production road car to use carbon fibre in its construction was the Bugatti EB110 in 1991. Its chassis was built by an aircraft company called Aérospatiale, and was 100% carbon fibre in construction.
But it's so damn expensive, we will never see it on 'normal' road cars will we? Wrong. BMW have already started to use small pieces of the material in cars such as their 7 series, and other manufacturers are working on reducing the costs to make the stuff. Lamborghini for example have a research group that is looking at the use of partially recycled carbon fibres, as are Ford, dramatically reducing the costs involved with this technology.