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What are Carbon Fiber Composites?

Composite materials are materials containing more than one phase such that the different phases are artificially blended together. They are not multiphase materials in which the different phases are formed naturally by reactions, phase transformations, or other phenomena.
Microscopic image of carbon fiber
A composite material typically consists of one or more fillers in a certain matrix. A carbon fiber composite is one in which at least one of the fillers is carbon fibers, either short or continuous, unidirectional or multidirectional, woven or nonwoven. The matrix is usually a polymer, a metal, a carbon, a ceramic, or a combination of different materials. Except for sandwich composites, the matrix is three-dimensionally continuous, whereas the filler can be three-dimensionally discontinuous or continuous. Carbon fiber fillers are usually three-dimensionally discontinuous unless the fibers are three-dimensionally interconnected by weaving or by the use of a binder such as carbon.
The high strength and modulus of carbon fibers makes them useful as a reinforcement for polymers, metals, carbons, and ceramics, even though they are brittle. Effective reinforcement requires good bonding between the fibers and the matrix, especially for short fibers. For a unidirectional composite, the longitudinal tensile strength is quite independent of the fiber-matrix bonding, but the transverse tensile strength and the flexural strength increase with increasing fiber-matrix bonding. On the other hand, excessive fiber-matrix bonding can cause a composite with a brittle matrix (e.g., carbon and ceramics) to become more brittle. The strong fiber-matrix bonding causes cracks to propagate straightly in the direction perpendicular to the fiber-matrix interface without being deflected to propagate along this interface. In the case of a composite with a ductile matrix (metals and polymers), a crack initiating in the brittle fiber tends to be blunted when it reaches the ductile matrix, even when the fiber-matrix bonding is strong. Therefore, an optimum degree of fiber-matrix bonding is needed for brittle-matrix composites, whereas a high degree of fibermatrix bonding is preferred for ductile-matrix composites.

The mechanisms of fiber-matrix bonding include chemical bonding, van der Waals bonding, and mechanical interlocking. Chemical bonding gives the largest bonding force, provided the density of chemical bonds across the fiber-matrix interface is sufficiently high. This density can be increased by chemical treatments of the fibers or by sizings on the fibers. Mechanical interlocking between the fibers and the matrix is an important contribution to the bonding if the fibers form a three dimensional network. Otherwise, the fibers should have a rough surface in order for a small degree of mechanical interlocking to take place. Both chemical and van der Waals bonding require the fibers to be in intimate contact with the matrix. For intimate contact to take place, the matrix or matrix precursor must be able to wet the surfaces of the carbon fibers during its infiltration into the carbon fiber preform. Chemical treatments and coatings can be applied to the fibers to enhance wetting. The choice of treatment or coating depends on the matrix. Another way to enhance wetting is to use high pressure during infiltration. A third method is to add a wetting agent to the matrix or matrix precursor before infiltration. As the wettability may vary with temperature, the infiltration temperature can be chosen to enhance wetting.
The occurrence of a reaction between the fibers and the matrix helps the wetting and bonding between the fibers and the matrix. An excessive reaction degrades the fibers, and the reaction product(s) may be undesirable for the mechanical, thermal, or moisture resistance properties of the composite. An optimum amount of reaction is preferred.
Carbon fibers are electrically and thermally conductive, in contrast to the nonconducting nature of polymer and ceramic matrices. Therefore, carbon fibers can serve not only as a reinforcement, but also as an additive for enhancing electrical or thermal conductivity. Furthermore, carbon fibers have nearly zero coefficient of thermal expansion, so they can also serve as an additive for lowering thermal expansion. The combination of high thermal conductivity and low thermal expansion makes carbon fiber composites useful for heat sinks in electronics, and for space structures that require dimensional stability. As the thermal conductivity of carbon
fibers increases with the degree of graphitization, applications requiring a high thermal conductivity should use the graphitic fibers, such as high-modulus pitchbased fibers and vapor-grown carbon fibers.

Carbon fibers are more cathodic than practically any metal, so in a metal matrix, a galvanic couple is formed with the metal as the anode. This causes corrosion of the metal. The corrosion product tends to be unstable in moisture and causes pitting, which aggravates corrosion. To alleviate this problem, carbon fiber metal-matrix composites are often coated.

Carbon is the matrix that is most compatible with carbon fibers. The carbon fibers in a carbon-matrix composite (called carbon-carbon composite) serve to strengthen the composite, as the carbon fibers are much stronger than the carbon matrix because of the crystallographic texture in each fiber. Moreover, the carbon fibers serve to toughen the composite, as debonding between the fibers and the matrix provides a mechanism for energy absorption during mechanical deformation.

In addition to having attractive mechanical properties, carbon-carbon composites are more thermally conductive than carbon fiber polymer-matrix composites. However, at elevated temperatures (above 320°C), carbon-carbon composites degrade due to the oxidation of carbon (especially the carbon matrix), which forms CO2 gas. To alleviate this problem, carbon-carbon composites are coated. Carbon fiber ceramic-matrix composites are more oxidation resistant than carbon-carbon composites. The most common form of such composites is carbon fiber reinforced concrete. Although the oxidation of carbon is catalyzed by an alkaline environment and concrete is alkaline, the chemical stability of carbon fibers in concrete is superior to that of competitive fibers, such as polypropylene, glass, and steel. Composites containing carbon fibers in more advanced ceramic matrices (such as SiC) are rapidly being developed.

Carbon fiber composites are most commonly fabricated by the impregnation of the matrix or matrix precursor in the liquid state into the fiber preform, which is usually in the form of a woven fabric. In the case of composites in the shape of tubes, the fibers may be impregnated in the form of a continuous bundle from a
spool and, subsequently, the bundles may by wound on a mandrel. Instead of impregnation, the fibers and matrix material may be intermixed in the solid state by commingling carbon fibers and matrix fibers, by coating the carbon fibers with the matrix material, by sandwiching carbon fibers with foils of the matrix material, or in other ways. After impregnation or intermixing, consolidation is carried out, often under heat and pressure.

Because of the decreasing price of carbon fibers, the applications of carbon fiber composites are rapidly widening to include the aerospace, automobile, marine, construction, biomedical, and other industries. This situation poses an unusual demand on research and development in the field of carbon fiber composites.

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