High Performance Carbon Fibers
In February 1960, materials engineer Roger Bacon published findings on studies of graphite and carbon fibers, which contributed to a revolution in the heat-resistant materials used in aircraft and satellites.
The modern era of carbon fibers began in 1956, when Union Carbide opened its Parma Technical Center just outside Cleveland. They gathered young, bright scientists from a variety of backgrounds and let them loose on their favorite projects, giving them an extraordinary degree of autonomy.
Roger Bacon joined the Parma staff in 1956. “I got into carbon arc work, studying the melting of graphite under high temperature and pressures,” Bacon recalls. As Bacon decreased the pressure in the arc, he noticed that the carbon would go straight from the vapor phase to the solid phase, forming a stalagmite-like deposit on the lower electrode. “I would examine these deposits, and when I broke one open to look at the structure, I found all these whiskers,” he says. They were long filaments of perfect graphite.”
The year was 1958, and Bacon had demonstrated the first high performance carbon fibers. In fibrous forms, carbon and graphite are the strongest and stiffest materials for their weight that have ever been produced. Carbon fibers are polymers of graphite, a pure form of carbon where the atoms are arranged in big sheets of hexagonal rings that look like chicken wire.
Since Roger Bacon discovered “graphite whiskers” in 1958 at Union Carbide’s Parma Technical Center, carbon fibers have been used in high performance applications from airplanes to automobiles and from satellites to sporting goods. Bacon’s research, along with a host of other scientists at Parma over the years, set the stage for the exploding field of carbon fiber-based composite materials technology. And despite missing the first trip to the moon, carbon fibers have still seen their fair share of outer space: Every space shuttle has had carbon fiber on the leading edge of its wing.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to read more about high performance carbon fibers.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program