Carbon, glass fiber mix it up

For most of the last several decades, whenever someone used the words “composites” and “boats” in the same sentence, it’s likely that you immediately thought “fiberglass.” And rightfully so.
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For most of the last several decades, whenever someone used the words “composites” and “boats” in the same sentence, it’s likely that you immediately thought “fiberglass.” And rightfully so. That material has become a reliable mainstay for many applications on boats and other watercraft, ranging from modest canoes and kayaks to luxury megayachts.

Carbon fiber, however, has historically taken a backseat to glass when it comes to marine work. That might be changing, though, as this issue shows. Exhibit A, you’ve already noticed on the cover: the U.S. Navy’s futuristic M-80 Stiletto, a carbon fiber-laden marvel of design and engineering, which is covered this month in “Inside Manufacturing,” (see “Related Content,” at left). Think of it as the Stealth Ship, which uses carbon fiber in all the right places and all the right ways to keep it nearly invisible to radar and overhead aircraft. Throw in the unique double M-shaped hull that provides lift, reduces drag and minimizes wake, and you have a nice model for smart and effective use of carbon fiber for other military and civilian marine applications.

Taking this one step further, our feature on boatbuilding, “Carbon Fiber Buys Its Way Onboard” (see “Related Content”), dispenses quickly with the notion that carbon fiber is too expensive for marine use outside of high-priced military applications. In fact, the strategic use of carbon fiber in several yacht applications is not only answering difficult engineering challenges but proving cost-effective as well, a notion that, until now, was hard to embrace. It’s clear, though, that with good design backed up by smart FEA work, carbon has had and will continue to play an important role in boatbuilding.

Finally, this month’s “Market Trends” (see “Related Content”) explores just how much of a role carbon fiber has to play in marine applications, and offers a glimpse of where the market might be headed.

Out of water but drawing on the power of the sun is Nuna4 (“Focus on Design,” (see “Related Content”), a solar car designed by students at the University of Delft (The Netherlands) for the 20th Annual Panasonic World Solar Challenge, a 1,864-mile race from one end of Australia to the other. The Delft team is three-time defending champion and has used carbon fiber liberally in the design of this year’s vehicle, which weighs in at less than 420 lb and is expected to achieve an average speed of 64 mph.

What these stories confirm is something that we’ve known for some time: The “boundaries” that have historically defined the composites industry are getting fuzzier. Carbon fiber, once found primarily in high-end racing sports and aerospace applications, is migrating to marine, automotive and wind energy parts and components. And as designers and engineers better understand this versatile material, and as simulation and modeling software helps engineers perfect its use, those lines will become increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to discern. And that’s a good thing — for the industry, for the products and for the consumer.