Energy Innovation Brief
Issue 35 | November 2023
Special issue on carbon fibre
For our final EIB of 2023, we bring you a special issue on carbon fibre, a hyper-strong material used in everything from hockey sticks to premium bicycle frames to cars and airplanes. It’s a good fit for the EIB because carbon fibre is a hydrocarbon-based product seeing a wave of innovation across its lifecycle. It is also a material being used to reduce energy needs in other industries.
Carbon fibre was invented in 1886 but its use has skyrocketed over the past two decades, growing from 20 kilotons of annual demand in the year 2000 to over 160 kilotons today. And as you will see below, there’s good reason to think demand will continue to increase exponentially.
Why is carbon fibre so useful?
The primary virtue of carbon fibre is that it is both incredibly lightweight and has exceptional tensile strength. Composites can be as strong as steel at just one-fifth to one-tenth of the weight. This makes carbon fibre prized in products that require maximum strength to weight ratios, such as spacecraft.
In addition to physical strength, carbon fibre has other useful properties. It can be shaped and molded in a way many other materials cannot, and can be made to be flexible. It doesn’t rust or distort when exposed to heat. It is transparent to x-rays, biologically inert and resistant to chemicals.
Here are some applications and use-cases for carbon fibre today:
- Planes: Fuel efficiency is a key operational cost in aviation. Airplanes built with carbon fibre can weigh up to 20 per cent less than their aluminum counterparts, saving companies millions of dollars in fuel. Though still in the minority, commercial planes made primarily out of carbon fibre composites, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, have been in service as passenger planes since 2011.
- Cars: Carbon fibre is commonly used for the body structure in low-volume, high-cost sports cars like Alfa Romeos and Lamborghinis. Auto manufacturers have yet to incorporate it into consumer-grade cars, mostly because it is expensive. However, as the cost of the material decreases, manufacturers are exploring the use of carbon fibre to make cars lighter and more fuel-efficient—everywhere from body panels to battery enclosures to wheels.
- Industrial automation and robotics: Lightweight carbon fibre allows machinery such as robotic arms to be faster and more efficient, as well as require less power.
- Performance sports equipment: Elite athletes are willing to pay a premium for the lightest and most efficient equipment. The use of carbon fibre for bicycles frames is very common, but also can be seen in hockey sticks, tennis rackets, golf clubs and skis.
- Medical equipment: Carbon fibre has many biomedical uses, including light-weight prosthetics, biologically inert implants and scaffolding for tissue engineering. It also makes for radiation-resistant imaging equipment.
- Wind turbine blades: Carbon fibre is superior to fiberglass for wind turbine blades because it has better stiffness, strength and fatigue resistance. This means longer blades and greater energy capture. Its high cost has so far prevented widespread adoption, but use is on the rise.
Although carbon fibre has excellent tensile strength, it is only 10 to 60 per cent as strong under compression (think of how it is easy to fold a piece of fabric but very difficult to pull it apart). This is why carbon fibre was not the ideal material for the Titan submarine that tragically collapsed underwater in June of this year.
Carbon fibre sounds like a wonder material. So why isn’t it being used even more broadly at this point? One of the biggest challenges has historically been cost.
How carbon fibre is made and why it costs so much
Carbon fibre is formed of interwoven carbon strands bound with resin. The strands are made from organic polymers (i.e., molecule strings held together with carbon). About 90 per cent of carbon fibre products are produced from polyacrylonitrile (PAN), a synthetic polymer produced from propylene and ammonia. The remaining 10 per cent is made from rayon or petroleum pitch (more on that later!). These precursors are processed into long, tightly interlocked chains of carbon atoms, or fibres. These fibres are then woven together and bound with resin to form a composite cloth.
The material properties of carbon composites vary depending on factors such as the type of fibre and resin used, the fibre-to-resin ratio, and the ways in which the carbon fibres are woven together. There are not industry-standard composites in the same way that there are standardized metal alloys, for example. This means that designing components with carbon fibre encompasses designing the material itself. The bespoke nature of carbon fibre can make it more expensive to work with, but it also means that the material is tailored to its specific use.
The cost of carbon fibre composites has decreased over the last few decades—it is down to $7 per pound for some products, compared to $35 per pound 20 years ago. However, that is still a much higher material cost than many of carbon fibre’s competitors (for example, steel costs less than a dollar per pound).
Where is innovation happening?
The Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge – producing low-cost carbon fibre from Alberta bitumen
Alberta Innovates, Alberta’s provincial research and innovation agency, has launched the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a $26 million, three-phase competition. The objective is to accelerate the development of large-scale, low-cost production pathways for carbon fibre made specifically from feedstock derived from Alberta bitumen.
The first phase, which focused on developing plans for producing carbon fibre from bitumen, had 20 entrants. The second phase challenged 12 teams to demonstrate the production of carbon fibre at lab scale. The teams came from academia (including three teams from the University of Calgary, three teams from the University of Alberta, one from UBC, one from McGill and one from Deakin University in Australia) and also from the private sector—including Calgary-based Enlighten Innovations and AdVen Industries.
The challenge launched its third phase in March 2023. In Phase 3, teams must demonstrate they can produce pre-commercial amounts of carbon fibre from Alberta bitumen at a cost below $9 per kilogram.
If contestants succeed, they will help Alberta in two ways: it will provide a non-combustion channel for Alberta’s bitumen and could position the province to become a leading producer of competitive carbon-fibre products.
End of life: developing options for re-use and recycling
Carbon fibre is not easily recyclable. Unlike substances such as plastic, it cannot be easily melted down and recycling results in material that is significantly less strong. As a result, most products made from carbon fibre end up in the landfill. Given the size of the industries using or proposing to use carbon fibre—aerospace, defence, automotive, etc.—the volume of waste could be enormous.
However, progress is being made. For example:
- The Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance, which launched on Earth Day, 2022, has brought together leading sports federations (cycling, sailing, tennis, etc.), sports manufacturers and universities. They are starting with a demonstration project that takes broken equipment, re-aligns the fibres, and creates a tape (kind of like duct tape) they claim may be better than virgin fibre.
- The UK’s National Composite Centre recently launched a three-year innovation program to fast-track a ‘second-life’ materials market for recycled carbon fibre. Their focus is on reclaiming and re-using what is essentially chopped-up carbon fibre waste, and trying to find customers for the product.
- A small number of companies, including Gen2carbon, Vartega and Carbon Conversions, provide commercial recycling services. Some are working directly with major carbon fibre users. For example, Boeing and recycler ELG have partnered to repurpose aerospace-grade composite material for making laptop cases, car parts and other products.
- And university-based researchers across the globe are pushing the envelope on developing new chemical and heat-based approaches to decomposing and recomposing carbon fibre with little loss in quality.
Carbon fibre from captured CO2?
When we started writing this issue, we were curious to see if any companies were proposing to make carbon fibre using carbon that had been captured from industrial emissions or direct air capture. Basically, using carbon fibre as a permanent sequestration medium. The short answer: no. Captured CO2 is being used to make other carbon-based products such as nanotubes and nanofibers, but as far as we have seen, the inputs to carbon fibre are not on the list—at least for now.
In short, carbon fibre—which offers the hat trick of strength, lightness and energy efficiency—might just be one of the miracle materials of the 21st century. The main barrier—cost—is rapidly dissolving, which is likely to lead to an explosion in new innovations in transportation, industry and beyond.
Thank you for reading the final EIB of 2023. We look forward to sharing more exciting innovations in 2024. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and we’ll see you in the new year!
In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Ryan Workman and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .
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