High maintenance, though tough as nails: Why industry loves carbon fiber—and the emerging less energy-intensive alternative that could replace it

A graphic featuring a lake and suspension bridge in the foreground; a mountain range and city in the background. high clouds. An airplane is at 30,000 ft, a mountain peak at 14,000 ft. At the city end of the bridge, a bubble that reads "carbon fiber 3 MTCO2e per year."

You don’t get to be king of the hill, top of the heap by being a slouch. 

Carbon fiber, the current industry gold standard for manufacture of everything from sports equipment, to race cars, to marine and wind energy components, to parts for airplanes and spacecraft first came on the scene in the late 1950s. 

Since the 1958 invention of “graphite whiskers,” high-performance carbon fiber technology has evolved into a 6.5 billion dollar market, and is projected to grow to more than 21 billion by 2032.

The sailing industry, in particular, is fond of carbon fibers because it’s six times harder, half as heavy, and yet twice as strong as fiberglass. These characteristics carry important implications for speed and fuel efficiency of the watercraft. 

While its strength-to-weight ratio and various performance characteristics make it a leader in its class, the reality is that carbon fiber is energy-intensive to produce, complicated to manufacture, as well as being difficult to recycle and non-biodegradable. A growing concern of environmental impact is driving shifts in industry toward the adoption of sustainability measures. 

Let’s take a closer look at why carbon fiber is still the leader of the pack across many industries, examine some of its downsides, and how emerging technologies are paving the way to high-performing alternative materials. 

Carbon fiber 101: What is it, what are its current applications?

Carbon fiber is a polymer (also known as graphite fiber). Its ubiquity in manufacturing—and in the world around us—is due to the fact that it is a both strong and lightweight material.

Because it possesses these highly desirable qualities, carbon-fiber-reinforced composite material has a host of applications. It is used in the aerospace industry to make things such as airplanes and spacecraft parts. Race car bodies, bike frames, golf club shafts, and sailboat masts all benefit from carbon fiber’s lightweight strength. 

Carbon fiber is generally the material of choice when both high strength and light weight are a requirement. 

Carbon fiber: A high maintenance material

While carbon fiber offers many advantages over its precursors, its positive attributes do not come without a cost. Namely, although it is notoriously strong in its final form, it is quite dense and brittle at the outset, and producing it is highly energy intensive. 

The raw material used to make carbon fiber is called a “precursor,” and 90% of carbon fibers employ polyacrylonitrile as its precursor—although the precise makeup of the individual precursors can vary. 

Depending on the specific goals of the end product, a variety of chemicals and mechanical processes are used in the manufacture of the final carbon fiber composite. Typically, the product goes through many stages, from spinning, stabilizing, and carbonizing, to treating the surface and sizing. Several of these steps are complex and require high heat, which renders the process both energy intensive, as well as expensive. 

According to a recent study, the energy consumption involved in producing one kilogram of carbon fiber is 100-900 megajoules (MJ). Compare this to steel production, where the energy consumption is only 20-30MJ per kilogram. When looking at the production costs of carbon fiber, just the capital required to set up a top notch assembly line comes in at a minimum of $25 million for the equipment alone.  

And the complicated manufacturing process carries with it a substantial environmental toll as well. It takes ten chemical reactions, four phase changes, and four mechanical processes to produce carbon fiber. According to a recent study, the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of carbon fiber production versus steel is striking. The environmental burden of producing carbon fibers from polyacrylonitrile is roughly 24.00 kg-CO2eq/kg, whereas for steel, it’s 2-3 kg-CO2eq/kg. 

The Galvorn gains: Improving both performance and environmental impact

Galvorn has the potential to go toe-to-toe with carbon fiber on performance, however by swapping it in for carbon fiber in composites, these gains in performance come at a reduced environmental and energy cost as well.

Similar to carbon fiber, Galvorn is both strong and lightweight, however Galvorn goes the extra mile: it is lighter than carbon fiber (1.6 g/cc), while maintaining high strength (3 GPa). Galvorn is also significantly more flexible than carbon fibers, which enables ease of manufacture, as well as less breakage in the process. And, an added win comes in the realm of conductivity, as Galvorn has 10x greater electrical conductivity than traditional carbon fiber composites. This quality in particular opens the door to countless exciting applications, such as enabling real-time signals to be beamed from snowboards, bikes, surfboards, tennis rackets, football helmets, hockey sticks, and more.

Simplicity = sustainability

When drilling down into the sustainability stats, Galvorn stands out from the crowd—it outperforms GHG-intense alternatives across a multitude of applications—and has the potential to be carbon-negative at scale. 

With Galvorn’s combination of highly-valued propertiesconductive, 10x stronger than steel, half the weight of aluminum, 100x the flex life of copper and carbon fiber, cut-resistant, flame-resistant, biocompatible, and recyclable—Galvorn sacrifices nothing on performance while opening the door to greatly enhanced sustainability.

When compared to the carbon fiber production process, Galvorn’s is a kinder, gentler one, requiring only three chemical reactions, two phase changes, and two mechanical processes. And the final product is worthy of admiration. At a glance, the Galvorn gains could revolutionize countless industries and products, while whittling down their environmental footprints:

  • DexMat is on track to achieve -1.1 kg net CO₂e impact for every kg of Galvorn within six years; 
  • In 25 years, every kg of Galvorn has -50 kg net CO₂e impact; 
  • A better big picture: Galvorn can achieve -2-3 gigatonnes CO₂e annual impact.
Better with age: Galvorn’s CO2e decreases over time, while the quantity of metals it can displace increases year after year.
Galvorn gaining steam: In just a few short years, Galvorn's shrinking carbon footprint will be smaller than steel, copper, and aluminum.

From the Tour de France to your next flight, Galvorn might be there. 

With the potential to produce everything from lighter and stronger bicycles and boats, to airplanes and spacecraft—all while minimizing cost, energy, and emissions—the Galvorn gains are clear.

Learn more about how Galvorn stacks up against the competition and download the Galvorn CO2 Life Cycle Analysis report

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