The question as to why carbon fiber hadn’t been included into the material repertoire of our class was broached night. The answer may lie in the fact that carbon is a relatively new material, and its potential for application is still being tested. Mass production processes have yet to be developed, keeping costs high. These high costs become a prohibitive factor, especially for building applications where large quantities are needed. However, as demand for carbon increases, the costs have started going down, opening up the possibilities for new, more intensive applications.
Carbon fiber is has been valued as a material for its light weight, high tensile strength (15 times that of steel), stiffness, absorbency, high temperature tolerances and low thermal expansion. It has been used in its pure form or as part of a polymer composite for medical applications such as prosthesis, cladding and frames for vehicles, an array of sporting equipment, planes, gun barrels, water filters. The list goes on.
One of the first application of carbon as a building structure was for the 2011 BMW Guggenheim pavilion designed by Atilier Bow-Wow. A carbon fiber polymer was used for all of the structural members. The application of the material was well suited to the building type, which was to be transported to three different locations around the globe. The individual members were light enough to require only one person to lift them, making set-up and dismantling much easier. This building type, which had very low loads, was also a low risk application of the material. Unlike steel and other structural building materials, carbon fiber has no fatigue endurance limit, making it very difficult to predict when the material will fail. It is due to this characteristic that the application as a structural element in buildings becomes risky, and thus prohibitive.
The most promising application of carbon fiber in buildings is when it is in its pure form. Due to its molecular structure, carbon fibers act as a filter, catching micro-particulates out of the air. This ability is currently used in small applications such as air filters for cars and screen inserts. When applied to the exterior of a building, the air cleaning capacity could be tremendous.
Carbon fiber in its pure form is also extremely heat resistant, and so could be used as an alternative to gypsum board, replacing a product that is harmful to mine and difficult to recycle as a fire retardant. Carbon fiber can be recycled easily and retain its qualities. Carbon fiber polymers, on the other hand, lose their strength in the recycling process, but can still be used for aesthetic purposes such as laptop or phone cases.