High-performance composites evolve as customers seek the ideal material to meet stringent characteristic requirements.

During a meeting with engineers from an automaker, Jason Carling got a common reaction – and one he was prepared for – when he suggested they consider using carbon fiber composites to replace a large, heavy metal part. “They got bug-eyed at the cost,” says Carling, global director of product development for Toho Tenax America Inc., a carbon fiber supplier based in Rockwood, Tenn. “They needed a material below $X per pound.” But rather than shrug his shoulders and walk away, Carling turned the tables on the engineers: He asked them to reconsider their design criteria.

The automaker was looking at a one-to-one replacement, swapping steel with high-performance composites. Instead, Carling asked them to think about important characteristics of the part: What strength and stiffness were required, where was the fastening location, and what were the key mounting points? Then Carling suggested a new design, using carbon fiber materials, which had significantly less mass than the original steel part. “The composites design did not look the same, but all the key characteristics were the same and the safety margins were reasonable and acceptable,” he says.

When the engineers realized the weight savings, the cost of carbon fiber became irrelevant. “It was a paradigm shift these guys could not even comprehend at the beginning of the conversation,” says Carling. The automaker has not switched the part to carbon fiber composites yet because of its capital investment in metal. But the engineers’ eyes have been opened to the benefits of composites.

High-performance composites have long been used in aerospace and luxury automotive applications, but these advanced materials are increasingly found in wind energy, architecture and building construction, pipe and tank and other industrial applications where material performance is critical. The primary advantages of high-performance composites are increased strength and stiffness, but they can be formulated to offer other desirable properties, including heat, corrosion and chemical resistance.

The High-performance Debate

While the benefits of high-performance composites may be clear, pinpointing a concise definition is a bit muddy. What exactly makes something a “high-performance” composite – or an advanced composite, another term industry insiders use interchangeably? “There is a bit of an inside baseball discussion and bickering about what constitutes high-performance composites,” admits Carling. “The industry as a whole tries to capture what all composites are, but high-performance in glass fiber may be something entirely different than carbon fiber.”