Geek Speak

Car­bon fi­bre tries to rein­vent the wheel

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - By LOUIS COR­DONY

IF THERE ever was some­one whose name less suited their in­ven­tion, it’s Roger Ba­con. Born in 1926 in Cleve­land, Ohio, the man named af­ter cured pork also in­vented the won­drous struc­tural ma­te­rial that’s among the light­est and strong­est ever in­vented by man.

And like other great sci­en­tific ad­vances in the 20th cen­tury, his dis­cov­ery in 1958 was a sur­prise. While try­ing to find graphite’s triple-point – when its liq­uid, solid, and gas states reach tem­per­a­tures where con­duc­tion stops – some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened.

Car­bon vapour would not first trans­form into liq­uid, but into small, inch-long fi­bres – ones that were 10 times stronger than steel and al­most four times stiffer. The ge­n­e­sis then, for car­bon fi­bre.

But one which, at the time, Ba­con es­ti­mated would cost US$22 mil­lion per kilo­gram to make.

With such high in­vest­ment re­quired, first ap­pli­ca­tions ei­ther had wings or were rocket pro­pelled. But around the early 1980s, man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses started to make leaps for­ward.

McLaren would be the first to build its For­mula One rac­ers around it. Since then, race­cars have been con­sumed by the ma­te­rial, while bou­tique brands like Pa­gani and Koenigsegg have made it their car’s USPs. How­ever, de­spite big gains in safety and ef­fi­ciency up for grabs, its up­take in the mass mar­ket has been much slower.

Why car­bon fi­bre might strug­gle to gain trac­tion at the board­room level is the fact it’s an ex­pen­sive

struc­tural com­po­nent. Use it pur­pose­fully in small amounts, like sus­pen­sion arms where it’s not vis­i­ble, and the mar­ket­ing depart­ment can’t sell it very eas­ily. Nor would an av­er­age driver feel it. Use it for the body or chas­sis, where it’s both seen and felt, and costs quickly start to climb.

How­ever, it’s start­ing to get a roll on with wheels. As the big­ger-is­bet­ter trend gains pace, mak­ers are be­ing forced to use it to un­lock new per­for­mance gains.

Car­bon-fi­bre wheels mean sus­pen­sion bushes, dampers, and springs have less de­flected weight to fight. It also light­ens the bal­last on each steer­ing rod, re­duc­ing steer­ing ef­fort. Mean­while, ro­ta­tional in­er­tia im­proves, too. Imag­ine each rim as a fly­wheel. When lighter, less en­ergy is needed for them to spin up or slow down.

That’s han­dling, ride, brak­ing, ac­cel­er­a­tion, and weight im­proved with one mod­i­fi­ca­tion. The unique look is also a mar­ket­ing dream, too.

As big­ger-is-bet­ter gains pace, car­bon­fi­bre wheels un­lock new per­for­mance gains

For Porsche en­gi­neers, who work on the largest wheels and tyres in the biz, it must be a god­send. And while Koenigsegg and Ford both of­fered OE car­bon wheels be­fore Porsche, Stuttgart dif­fer­en­ti­ates it­self with its man­u­fac­tur­ing method. Which, for the 911 Turbo Ex­clu­sive Se­ries, and as you can see, is pretty space-age.

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