Carbon fiber has long had a cool factor when it comes to outdoor gear. The woven black finish was a symbol that it was lightweight and ridiculously pricey. But what exactly is carbon fiber and why is it so expensive?
To understand the origins of carbon fiber we have to look at the invention of light bulbs. In 1879, Thomas Edison was creating filaments for the first light bulbs by baking cotton threads or bamboo slivers and extremely high temperatures. All that was left was a sliver of carbon that lit up nicely when a current ran through it.
It wasn’t until 1958 at a research facility outside Cleveland that high-performance carbon fibers were created. Researcher Roger Bacon was heating strands of rayon in a vacuum, baking off everything but the carbon. What was left was a “whisker” of carbon or graphite. For its weight, carbon fiber is stronger than steel.
The process, while still not cheap and easy, has improved up to today. Different base materials can be used, which affect the end quality of the carbon. Rayon was the first material, followed polyacrylonitrile, or PAN, and finally a petroleum-based “pitch.” The longer the processing, the higher the caliber of the carbon and the higher the cost.
But single carbon fibers are not what manufacturers use. For most applications, we need some resin.
A lot of the “carbon fiber” we see today is actually carbon fiber-reinforced polymer. The carbon fiber weave is impregnated with a soft resin and then baked onto a mold. Out pops a very lightweight but strong bike component, tennis racket, or paddle. Most products are not made with pure carbon fiber, either. They’re mixed with other things like graphene or fiberglass, depending on weight and cost.
Let’s get into some of the most common outdoor gear that uses carbon fiber today.
Specialized Tarmac Disc Expert Road Bike
Bike companies have been using carbon fiber for a long time in their designs, but one feature has held true from the beginning: They are more expensive. Because of the raw cost of carbon fiber and the expertise required to lay the carbon properly, they will always cost more. But when it comes to a bike like the Specialized Tarmac Disc Expert that’s insanely light but still rideable, it can be worth it. With Rider-First Engineering, each size frame of the Tarmac is designed separately for the optimal combination of stiffness and flex in each area. The carbon fiber layup in a small will be different than a large. Specialized is constantly tweaking the process and says the Tarmac is 45 seconds faster over 25 miles compared to similar lightweight bikes.
Gearlab Akiak Carbon Fiber Paddle
When paddling over long distances, ounces of extra weight on a paddle can become an issue. Carbon fiber easily lightens a paddle’s weight by ounces. The Akiak Carbon Fiber Paddle from GearLab take efficiency a step further by adopting a Greenland paddle shape, a design used centuries ago by Greenland Inuit. The long slender blades reduce the force needed for every stroke, giving your shoulders a break in the long run. Durable ProTek tips are replaceable if you happen to smash one on a rock or a shark.
Elan Ripstick 96 Black Edition Skis
Skis are a difficult thing to perfect. They need to be lightweight and strong, but at the same time dampen vibration and hold an edge through a turn. The Ripstick 96 Black Edition skis from Elan get pretty close to perfection with their carbon powershell wrap and Amphibio asymmetrical profile. The insides of the skis are cambered on the inside for grip and stability whereas the rockered outside edge smooths transitions in turns. Carbon tubes run the length of the ski inside the paulownia, birch, and poplar core to save weight and increase stiffness.
Haydenshapes Hypto Krypto Surfboard
The Hypto Krypto surfboard from Haydenshapes Surfboards uses a carbon rail around the outside instead of a wood stringer to provide stiffness and lively flex. The distinct monochromatic look shows off the traditional white fiberglass with black carbon fiber rails. Unlike natural wood stringers that can have a variety of grains, knots, and drying patterns, flex from carbon fiber can be precisely controlled and re-created.
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