Those of us who follow the composites industry are often amazed by the creative ways manufacturers put things like carbon fiber to use. Whether it is building a boat hull or creating the next generation of longboard skateboards, manufacturers of all types are coming up with bigger and better ways to use space-age materials that are stronger and lighter than aluminum and steel. Even the U.S. military is an enthusiastic fan of carbon fiber.
In a recent post on The Drive website, contributing author Joseph Trevithick talked about a safer bomb the U.S. Air Force wants to purchase at a cost of $116,000 each. While that cost may be some 40 times higher than a traditional 500-pound class bomb, the Air Force believes it is an investment in safety. As strange as that sounds, carbon fiber can make bombs safer.
It’s All in the Shell
The particular bomb the U.S. Air Force is after is one that is made with a carbon fiber shell. The carbon fiber provides the strength and rigidity necessary to contain everything inside the bomb, yet it has one distinct advantage over steel and aluminum: carbon fiber disintegrates once the bomb explodes.
When you’re talking about a bomb encased in steel or aluminum, you are talking about a weapon that sends shrapnel in every direction upon detonation. That shrapnel can harm civilians and destroy personal property. The carbon fiber bomb is different. Because its shell disintegrates rather than fractures, there is very little shrapnel involved in the detonation. Damage is limited to the local area only.
It is ironic to speak about a bomb as being safer in this regard. But when it comes to modern warfare, we pay a lot more attention to limiting civilian casualties than ever before. The carbon fiber bomb does just that. The question for military leaders to answer is whether the cost is worth it.
A Specialized Carbon Fiber Product
According to Trevithick, the carbon fiber shell used to make the bomb in question is no ordinary carbon fiber product. It is a specialized product that has to be rigid enough to withstand transport and deployment but still capable of disintegrating on detonation. Scientists and engineers worked for years to get the right formula. Trevithick says the design process began way back in 2010.
Developing new composite materials is normally a protracted process, says Utah-based Rock West Composites. Just like it took many years to perfect the aluminum and steel products we use so commonly today, it takes a lot of research, development, and testing to come up with a new composite product with certain unique properties.
The upside to all of this is that we are learning new ways to work with things like carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes. We are learning better ways to use everything from fiberglass to Kevlar. And as we learn, we are coming to understand that the potential for composites to completely revolutionize manufacturing and fabricating is huge.
An Eventual Aluminum and Steel Replacement
There are some in the composites industry who see things like carbon fiber and Kevlar being eventual replacements for aluminum and steel. And when we say replacements, we are talking entire replacements – not mere supplements. Projects like the safer bomb provide the optimism.
It could be that aluminum and steel will someday be viewed through the same lens we view mud bricks today. We may get to the point where aluminum and steel are the exceptions to the rule, while composite materials provide the lion’s share of the resources for manufacturing, fabrication, and construction.