Can carbon fiber solve the oil crisis?

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What Is Carbon Fiber?

Spools of carbon fiber will soon be woven into a strong and lightweight material.
Spools of carbon fiber will soon be woven into a strong and lightweight material.
Dusty Cline/

Before you can understand how carbon fiber can help solve the oil crisis, you have to understand what it is. Carbon fiber is a super strong material that's also extremely lightweight. Engineers and designers love it because it's five times as strong as steel, two times as stiff, yet weighs about two-thirds less. Carbon fiber is basically very thin strands of carbon -- even thinner than human hair. The strands can be twisted together, like yarn. The yarns can be woven together, like cloth. To make carbon fiber take on a permanent shape, it can be laid over a mold, then coated with a stiff resin or plastic (kind of like how you would make something out of papier-mâché by putting newspaper strips over a mold, then adding paste to force it to hold the shape).

Most car components are made of steel. Replacing steel components with carbon fiber would reduce the weight of most cars by 60 percent [source: USA Today]. That 60 percent drop in weight would, in turn, reduce that car's fuel consumption by 30 percent and cut greenhouse gas and other emissions by 10 to 20 percent [source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory]. That's a huge fuel savings, even without changing the car's engine. With a lighter carbon fiber body, car makers could build cars with smaller, more efficient engines, or increase the use of electric engines, resulting in even more fuel savings. Reducing weight, increasing fuel efficiency and allowing for the development of different kinds of engines: That's how carbon fiber can solve the oil crisis.

But wait, if carbon fiber is so great, why isn't it in widespread use in cars? Go to the next page to find out about carbon fiber's downsides.