Carbon fibre makes gear lighter, stiffer, and cooler. So what makes it so expensive?
Carbon fibre makes everything from boats to bikes lighter and stiffer. And look cooler.
Since its first use as a motor case on space rockets in the 1960s, it's often proclaimed as the ticket to better performance. It costs enough that it better. Despite 50 years of advancements carbon fibre remains expensively high end.
Jump to a carbon fibre bike frame, boat lay up or paddle and watch the sticker price double over more conventional materials. Why? Well, when Gizmodo, a techno-geek website, looked into it and they found that carbon fibre remains a pain in the butt to make and handle.
The starting material, a carbon rich acrylic similar to the ones used in sweaters and carpets, is not that expensive at $3 a pound. But processing it from a solid into stings of carbon requires huge, energy sucking machines to heat it for hours. Plus, there's 50 per cent waste. After three heatings, at temps upwards of 1,000 degrees Celsius, the power bill is huge. And that's just for the strands.
Now each fibre must be woven into lattice sheets an equally exacting and costly step. Each strand needs to be pulling its weight to ensure even strength. Once the fibres are weaved into sheets a resin is added to set its final shape. Screw that up and you need to start all over.
All in all, carbon fibre may start at $3 a pound, but by the time it reaches a bike frame manufacturer it will cost closer to $10 a pound. Add in a few mistakes, lots of waste and your $2,000 carbon fibre bike frame doesn't sound so expensive any more.
In the Gizmodo article there's talk of change with predictions of 60 per cent cut in some manufacturing costs. But it will be a while yet before that trickles down to the price of hiking poles, bike frames, boats and more. Until then, continue ogling with envy and saving like Scrooge.