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Strong carbon fibre

key to reinforced plastic South West,

A sports bicycle with black frame and wheels, highlighted with yellow graphics, some reading ‘Lotus’.
A LotusSport bicycle, 1992 - made mostly from carbon-fibre-reinforced composite and weighing 9 kg. Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

In the latter half of the 20th century new technologies demanded strong materials. Plastics were the new wonder material, being light and flexible, though these properties also meant they lacked strength. Designers would often have to use metals as their only option. 

The challenge was therefore to develop a technique that allowed a plastic and metal to be combined. Scientists in America and Japan also developed solutions to this problem, but it was in 1963 that engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough made a real breakthrough. 

William Watt (1912-85) and his team combined carbon fibres with the polymer polyacrylonitrile and exposed it to a unique, multistage heating process. This created a material as strong as steel but considerably lighter. The fibres could be used to reinforce polymers and moulded to create versatile composites that were stiff, light, corrosion-proof, heat-resistant and tear-resistant. 

Carbon-fibre composite, as it is known, is now used in Formula One racing cars as well as Olympic-level bicycles, sailing boats and hi-tech sports equipment. It is also being increasingly used in aviation. 

Science Museum

South West
Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, Hampshire
Key Individuals
Royal Aircraft Establishment,