PerspectivePolymers

Making stronger carbon-fiber precursors

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Science  13 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6471, pp. 1314-1315
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz7928

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Summary

Carbon fiber–reinforced polymers are used to create lightweight, high-strength structures such as airframes. More than 96% of commercial carbon fiber is derived from high-temperature heating (up to 1700°C) and stretching of a precursor fiber made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN) (1). In this process, PAN cyclizes to create a ladder structure, which is then carbonized to create the final turbostratic (disordered) structure. The high strength and stiffness of the carbon fibers are highly dependent on the composition of the precursor fiber and are limited by any defects such as voids or foreign particles. Generally, there is a trade-off between tensile strength and toughness, but on page 1376 of this issue, Liao et al. (2) report increasing both properties of PAN-based fibers. Their approach draws on an ancient understanding that multiple filaments wound together are stronger than individual filaments—namely, that “a cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccles. 4:12).

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