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Building Stronger Composites

Carbon fibers are stronger and lighter than steel, and composite materials based on carbon fiber reinforced polymers are being used in a growing number of applications, including major sections of the new Boeing 787 aircraft. But scientists believe carbon fiber technology could produce even stronger composites.

Georgia Tech researchers have developed a new technique for producing carbon fibers that sets a new milestone for strength and modulus — a measure of stiness. Their success stemmed from a new approach to spinning polyacrylonitrile, an organic polymer resin used to make carbon fibers.

“By using a gel-spinning technique to process polyacrylonitrile copolymer into carbon fibers, we have developed next-generation carbon fibers that exhibit a combination of strength and modulus not seen previously with the conventional solution-spun method,” said Satish Kumar, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering, who leads the project. “In addition, our work shows that the gel-spinning approach provides a pathway for even greater improvements.”

The gel-spun carbon fiber produced by Kumar’s team was tested at 5.5 to 5.8 gigapascals (GPa) — a measure of ultimate tensile strength — and had a tensile modulus in the 354 to 375 GPa range. The material was produced on a continuous carbonization line. The research is part of a project sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and was reported in the journal Carbon. —RICK ROBINSON

photo - Satish Kumar

Satish Kumar is a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering.

Georgia Tech is home to more than 2,500 faculty members who conduct scientific and engineering research in hundreds of different research areas.

photo - commercial aircraft
Boeing 787 photo: iStockPhoto.com

Factoid

The Boeing 787 makes greater use of composite materials in its airframe and primary structure than any previous Boeing commercial airplane. The airframe consists of nearly half carbon fiber reinforced plastic, and other composites. This approach offers weight savings on average of 20 percent compared to more conventional aluminum designs.

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