In 1981, a new kind of Formula One car was introduced by McLaren. The MP4/1, designed by John Barnard, had a shell made entirely of plastic reinforced with carbon fiber. Skeptics thought Barnard and McLaren were being foolish to rely so heavily on this little-known material.
John Watson, McLaren’s number one driver at that time, proved it was well worth the gamble, however. In a spectacular crash, Watson walked away unhurt and the carbon-fiber plastic chassis of the car was intact and reusable.
Today, carbon-fiber plastic is becoming increasingly common as engineers embrace its strength-to-weight ratio, which no other material — even aluminum — can beat.Â The latest commercial airliners are made of 40% carbon-fiber plastic. Itâ€™s also becoming more popular in equipment for sports such as golf and fishing.
As with the aviation industry, carmakers are focused on reducing fuel consumption, emissions and pollutants. At the same time, however, consumers are demanding more from each generation of car, necessitating the inclusion of extra equipment and more safety. This all adds weight.
As battery technology is still in its infancy, electric cars in particular have an inherent weight problem. Reducing this weight is of major importance for efficiency and driving dynamics, so interest in carbon fibre is higher than ever.
O’Donoghue explains in his article that many of the heavy-hitters in the automobile industry are now seriously studying carbon-fiber and other types of reinforced plastics.
But the new materials have their own issues. Science writer Anne Trafton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) News Office explains in a press release,
In recent years, many airplane manufacturers have started building their planes from advanced composite materials, which consist of high-strength fibers, such as carbon or glass, embedded in a plastic or metal matrix. Such materials are stronger and more lightweight than aluminum, but they are also more difficult to inspect for damage, because their surfaces usually don’t reveal underlying problems.
Engineers like Brian Wardle at MIT have been developing ways to peer into the interiors of these materials to inspect them for damage.Â Wardle’s team has come up with a way to quickly and easily inspect damage with a heat-sensitive camera in composite materials that contain carbon nanotubes. When a small electric current is applied to the material, the nanotubes heat up. The inspector can see the damage with the camera.
Wardle also happens to be developing new carbon nanotube hybrid materials that have better mechanical properties, such as strength and toughness, than existing reinforced materials.
Rajendrani "Raj" Mukhopadhyay is a science writer and editor who contributes news stories and feature articles on scientific advances to a variety of magazines. Raj holds Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.