SALT LAKE CITY - Three times stronger than steel at a fifth of the weight, carbon fiber has been used in spacecraft, fighter jets, the skin of ICBMs and in the Hubble telescope chassis.
Now, with prices for the raw material plunging and manufacturing techniques improving, carbon fiber is becoming more common in other products. A cottage industry in Utah is helping lead the way, molding the stuff into flyweight bicycle frames, prosthetic feet, rifle barrels and more.
Carbon fiber is finally hitting its stride, showing up in everything from golf clubs to ski poles. It's been more than a century since Thomas Edison made the first strand of pure carbon while testing light-bulb filaments.
In Utah, a fraternity of aerospace engineers appears on the verge of slashing the cost of mass-producing complex parts.
"Someday you'll be driving a carbon-fiber car," says Peter Travisono, the chief executive for MacLean Quality Composites in Sandy, Utah. The car could use lighter wheels, brakes and a smaller engine, drastically improving gas mileage without sacrificing safety or performance.
Already used in race cars, tough carbon panels are starting to show up in concept vehicles from Detroit and South Korea.
"We're at the cusp of a real explosion in the use of carbon fiber," said Travisono, whose shop supplies American bicycle maker Trek with tubular frames.
Much of the innovation in carbon fiber technology is springing from the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, where Hercules Inc. was the largest manufacturer of the raw material and ran an aerospace division until 1985.
Its breakup and dispersal of company engineers launched dozens of design and fabrication shops in Utah. Many went under or were taken over, but at least a dozen survive, all innovating in new, less expensive uses for carbon fiber. Two of the shops are working on the fuselage and wings for a Toyota small aircraft.
"It's a fragmented industry," said Rod Bitz, a spokesman for Alliant Techsystems, which makes carbon fiber parts for rocket motor cases, aircraft and satellites. "There's a lot of players that settled into certain niches."
Those players include Radius Engineering, which designed Trek's line of carbon fiber bicycles that Lance Armstrong rode to win the Tour de France each of the past three years. The frames weigh as little as 2.5 pounds, dropping total bike weight under 16 pounds.
Ron Nelson, one of its founders, left Radius to tinker with new manufacturing methods he says could halve the cost of a good carbon frame bike, bringing the price below $1,000.
Nelson, who runs ClosedMold Composites out of a shop in his house, said his method eliminates waste and makes carbon-fiber parts even lighter and stiffer. He's looking for investors.
Another player is Hexcel Corp., the largest U.S. manufacturer of high-performance carbon fiber. It bakes acrylic polymer in a series of ovens until only pure carbon strands remain, plant manager Ken Bunkowski said. It sells carbon fiber by spools of thread or fiber rolls and impregnates hardy versions with resin.
Until recently, carbon fiber was as expensive to make as it was difficult to fabricate. Commercial grades now sell for about $20 a pound, Bunkowski said. Steel goes for as little as 36 cents a pound, but the gap is closing enough to make carbon fiber practical.
Composites don't always work the first try. In 1999, a graphite-epoxy fuel tank built for a reusable spacecraft by Alliant Techsystems cracked during a test of how it would withstand the minus 451-degree cooling of liquid hydrogen. NASA last month canceled the X-33 project, saying the technology for lightweight composite tanks hasn't matured.
"There's still lots of potential," says John Nairn, a University of Utah professor of materials science. "It's a matter of cost and being able to manufacture what you need. It can be harder to make things out of carbon fiber, but you get properties you can't get from any other material."
Used in rocket nozzles, carbon fiber resists temperature extremes without expanding or contracting.
Springlight, another Sandy company, makes prosthetics out of carbon fiber and titanium. It outfitted Ed Hommer, the American Airlines pilot and double leg amputee who tried to scale Mount Everest last October. He was turned back by high winds and heavy snow.
Larry Ashton, 70, the dean of Utah's carbon fiber engineers, says cost has been the hurdle in carbon fiber fabrication "but that's one area where we feel we have made some progress. It's a definite 'maybe' " for a major breakthrough.
Ashton runs Rocky Mountain Composites in Spanish Fork, Utah, which makes "large parts for small aircraft and small parts for large aircraft." Like many shop owners he hesitates to name his customers, part of the secrecy that persists from the days of such military "black" programs as the carbon-fiber B-2 bomber.
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