Australia’s carbon fibre innovation makes its debut on the world stage

This Australian-first carbon fibre could pave the way for a manufacturing renaissance focused on creating next-gen materials.

Scientists at CSIRO have produced Australia’s first home-spun carbon fibre, and it has the potential to put the country on the map as a world leader in strong, yet lightweight materials.

Carbon fibre is notoriously difficult to make, and the handful of companies around the world that produce it keep their manufacturing process secret. As such, companies in Australia using carbon fibre in their products have had to rely mostly on imports – but no more.

“Cracking the carbon code will allow industry to manufacture this incredibly strong and lightweight material for the first time from scratch,” said CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall.

The first iterations of the material were produced in close collaboration between CSIRO and Deakin University: it was first spun on their joint wet spinning line, then carbonised at Deakin’s Carbon Nexus facility.

Marshall said this innovation could kick-start a new era of Australian manufacturing, one focussed on high-value products rather than raw exports.

The announcement comes a year after CSIRO’s Advanced Manufacturing Roadmap was launched, which called on industry, government and researchers to focus on high-value manufacturing opportunities.

“A carbon fibre industry signals the kind of reinvention needed across Australian industry, shifting our focus from raw exports to high value products to retain our global competitive advantage,” Marshall said.

The material combines high rigidity, tensile strength and chemical resistance at a low weight. However, not all version are created equal. It’s usually graded on two factors: strength and modulus, or level of stiffness. The properties are derived from the polymer used to create the fibres, also known as the ‘white fibre’ or ‘precursor’.

In this case, CSIRO’s carbon fibre was manufactured using polyacrylonitrile, a polymer with a high molecular weight and a low polydispersity, which “results in a superior fibre for carbonising”.

The first attempts focussed on car-quality carbon fibre, but CSIRO Research Director Dr John Tsanaktsidis said he fully expects them to soon advance to aerospace standard carbon fibre.

Carbon fibre has a variety of uses, including applications in bicycles and tennis rackets to satellites and fighter jets.