Better carbon fibre for Australia's industrial diet

Researchers at CSIRO are working on a carbon fibre recipe that is 20% stronger than what is currently available worldwide, and hailing it as a game changer for Australia.
News Image
Better carbon fibre for Australia's industrial diet

Researchers at CSIRO are working on a carbon fibre recipe that is 20% stronger than what is currently available worldwide, and hailing it as a game changer for Australia.

Carbon fibre is far stronger than steel at just a fraction of the metal's weight; it’s extremely rigid; has very high tensile strength; plus it’s chemically resistant and can undergo extremely high temperatures without expanding. Therefore, it can be used in everything from bicycles and cars to satellites and fighter jets, and the material is becoming increasingly affordable.

Carbon fibre starts off as a grainy polymer called polyacrylonitrile and the final carbon fibre is only as good as the polyacrylonitrile used to make it. However, according to CSIRO, the most commonly used method to make carbon fibre is believed to cause structural defects and weaken the material’s performance.

There are only a handful of companies around the world that produce carbon fibre and their recipes are fiercely guarded. Only a year ago, CSIRO and Deakin University developed Australia's own secret carbon fibre recipe from scratch. In the past, companies have had to import carbon fibre to make products, but that's all about to change as CSIRO ups the ante.

The organisation has created a technology called Reversible Addition Fragmentation chain Transfer (RAFT) that allows the production of polyacrylonitrile with high molecular weights, well-defined polymer structure, low polydispersity and a low viscosity profile. This makes it less susceptible to defects and breakages during the manufacturing process.

"We expect to eventually make aerospace-grade carbon fibre that’s 20% stronger than what’s currently available, which means we can potentially make 20% stronger carbon fibre at the same weight, or equal existing performance with 20% cent less fibre," CSIRO revealed.

The organisation says this would be a "game changer" and the sort of disruptive commercial advantage Australia needs to establish its own carbon fibre industry.

"The electric vehicle and unmanned aerial vehicle markets are already starting to drive massive growth in carbon fibre’s uptake, and it’s only going to increase," CSIRO said.

"The global carbon fibre-reinforced plastics market, for instance, is projected to reach US$32.66 billion in 2020."

CSIRO believes large-scale carbon fibre manufacturers can’t financially justify altering their factories for small, research-friendly runs, suggesting RAFT could make it much simpler for innovative companies to have carbon fibre made to their own specifications.