What's the big deal with carbon fiber?

Most car guys know that carbon fiber is lightweight (and very cool-looking), but most don't know much past that. We stopped by well-known carbon fiber manufacturer Seibon's booth at the 2009 SEMA show to get the skinny on this miracle material.

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Wet carbon

According to Seibon, there are two main types of carbon fiber. What we see here is "wet carbon," the glossy type that most enthusiasts are accustomed to seeing.

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Why wet?

To make wet carbon fiber parts, sheets of carbon weave are laid onto a mold between layers of resin, then cured. Wet carbon parts are lighter than their metal counterparts, but due to their hand-laid nature, are more prone to imperfections.

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Light(er)weight Lotus

The Lotus Elise is the vehicle that best embodies the "add lightness" performance mantra, which makes it a perfect candidate for carbon fiber parts.

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Carbon body panels

The Seibon Lotus features all carbon fiber body panels. If you look in the background, you can see Subaru's booth, which we profiled earlier.

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Okay, just one more...

Less weight means less mass to accelerate, which leads to better acceleration, braking, and handling. It's a triple threat!

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This Nissan 370Z features a wet carbon hood and body panels, as well as a more aggressive front air dam.

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Hyundai Genesis Coupe

While many like to leave their carbon fiber panels exposed for bragging rights, wet carbon components can be primed and painted for a more stealthy look. This Genesis' hood is partially painted.

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Rigidity without the weight

Carbon fiber is lightweight, but it's also quite stiff. Which means that it's strong enough to be used for parts like this huge wing without shattering, without adding a lot of mass above the vehicle's center of gravity.

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Dry carbon

The second type of carbon fiber is "dry carbon"--or more specifically, prepreg carbon fiber--which usually features a duller, matte finish. This is the stuff of Formula 1 dreams.

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How it's made...

Dry carbon fiber mats are preimpregnated with resin. The parts are formed in a vacuum mold under high heat and pressure. The heat and pressure cause the resin to evenly distribute throughout the part, with little to no waste.

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Dryer is better

Dry carbon fiber parts are both lighter (less resin used) and stronger (fewer imperfections) than their already lightweight wet counterparts. This S2000's hardtop and fastback need to be light to keep the vehicle's center of gravity low.

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Nissan GT-R

Back inside at the Seibon booth, we find this Nissan GT-R, which features a dry carbon hood and front lip.

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Light muscle?

While we typically think of Japanese tuner cars and European supercars as the primary market for carbon fiber, there is an emerging market for carbon parts for big American muscle cars, as well.

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Chevy Camaro

This Camaro features an assortment of carbon fiber components, many of which are painted, including its hood, fenders, side skirts, and front and rear bumpers.

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Every pound counts

This carbon fiber trunk lid should shave a few pounds off of the Camaro's heft. A secondary benefit of less weight is slightly improved fuel economy.

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Pedal power

Carbon fiber is no new thing to the world of cycling. In fact, road bikes have been using the material for years now. Seibon has recently begun to offer its own bike frames, such as this folding commuter bike.

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