Over the past few decades, an overwhelming majority of aircraft have been constructed from aluminum materials. As a metal that provides high strength to weight ratios at a relatively low price, it is no surprise that aluminum has been the top choice for constructing wings and fuselages. Despite this, manufacturers have recently begun to turn towards carbon fiber materials as they continue to penetrate the market with more availability. As carbon fiber aircraft remain a more expensive option as compared to their aluminum counterparts, why are they becoming ever more present in the aviation industry?
In general, carbon fiber is a material that is composed of many carbon-based fiber strands. By weaving together countless micrometer thick strands, carbon fiber can be produced. As compared to standard aluminum alloys that are used for aircraft construction, carbon fiber is much lighter in weight. With upwards of a 40% reduction in weight, using carbon fiber for fuselages and aircraft wings can dramatically improve the weight of aircraft as compared to aluminum or iron. As such, aircraft can spend less fuel for travelling longer distances, greatly reducing financial expenditures that can make up for the higher initial cost for materials.
Despite being much lighter in weight, carbon fiber is still very strong. Through research and experimentation, carbon fiber materials have shown almost four times the tensile strength of their aluminum counterparts. As such, aircraft structures can be built to be extremely robust, all while saving weight. Despite harsh weather, extreme wind forces, and other conditions that aircraft may face during flight, carbon fiber is resilient enough to be reliable through all types of operations.
Another desirable advantage that carbon fiber holds over aluminum and iron is its ability to resist corrosive elements and decay. Iron is often the least desirable material, as rusting and corrosion can come about from a variety of factors. While aluminum may not face rusting as iron does, it is still a metallic material that can be corroded over time with ease due to moisture and other chemicals. With carbon fiber, erosion and rust are both avoided, making the material extremely useful for aviation.
Last but not least, the construction of carbon fiber allows for an increase of aerodynamic performance that is made possible with improved designs. As compared to aluminum alloy, the construction of carbon fiber allows for more geometrically complex designs, ensuring smooth and robust shapes for optimal aerodynamics. Furthemore, aircraft wings can also be created with swept wing design while remaining rigid, reducing fuel consumption for more environmentally friendly operations.
Due to the various benefits provided by carbon fiber materials in regards to strength, weight, and fuel savings, the material is quickly becoming popular for aircraft of all types. For manufacturers such as Boeing, carbon fiber has been widely implemented for their 787 series, with some using upwards of 35 tons of carbon fiber for their construction. Additionally, other manufacturers have followed suit with the implementation of carbon fiber fuselages and aircraft wings, spearheading the coming standard of carbon fiber aircraft construction.
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