Carbon fibre: how we failed to reap rewards

July 25, 1997

The high potential strength of carbon fibre was first realised in 1963 in a process developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. The process was patented by the Ministry of Defence and then licensed by the NRDC to three British companies: Rolls-Royce, already making carbon fibre, Morganite and Courtaulds. They were able to establish industrial carbon fibre production facilities within a few years, and Rolls-Royce took advantage of the new material's properties to break into the American market with its RB-211 aero-engine.

Even then, though, there was public concern over the ability of British industry to make the best of this breakthrough. In 1969 a House of Commons select committee inquiry into carbon fibre prophetically asked: "How then is the nation to reap the maximum benefit without it becoming yet another British invention to be exploited more successfully overseas?" Ultimately, this concern was justified. One by one the licensees pulled out of carbon-fibre manufacture. Rolls-Royce's interest was in state-of-the-art aero-engine applications. Its own production process was to enableit to be leader in the use of carbon-fibre reinforced plastics. In-house production would typicallycease once reliable commercial sources became available.

Unfortunately, Rolls-Royce pushed the state-of-the-art too far, too quickly, in using carbon fibre in the engine's compressor blades, which proved vulnerable to damage from bird impact. What seemed a great British technological triumph in 1968 quickly became a disaster as Roll-Royce's ambitious schedule for the RB-211 was endangered. Indeed, Rolls-Royce's problems became so great that the company was eventually nationalised by Edward Heath's Conservativegovernment in 1971 and the carbon-fibre production plant sold off to form Bristol Composites.

Given the limited market for a very expensive product of variable quality, Morganite also decided that carbon-fibre production was peripheral to its core business, leaving Courtaulds as the only big UK manufacturer.

The company continued making carbon fibre, developing two mainmarkets: aerospace and sports equipment.The speed of production and the quality of the product were improved.

Continuing collaboration with the staff at Farnborough proved helpfulin the quest for higher quality, but, ironically, Courtaulds's big advantage as manufacturer of the "Courtelle" precursor now became a weakness. Low cost and readyavailability were potential advantages, but the water-based inorganic process used to produce Courtelle made it susceptible to impurities that did not affect the organic process used by other carbon-fibre manufacturers.

Nevertheless, during the 1980s Courtaulds continued to be a major supplier of carbon fibre for the sports-goodsmarket, with Mitsubishi its main customer. But a move to expand, including building a production plant in California, turned out badly. The investment did not generate the anticipated returns, leading to a decision to pull out of the area. Courtaulds ceased carbon-fibre production in 1991, though ironically the one surviving UK carbon-fibremanufacturer continued to thrive making fibre based on Courtaulds's precursor. Inverness-based RK Carbon Fibres Ltd has concentrated onproducing carbon fibre for industrial applications, and thus does not needto compete at the qualitylevels reached by overseas manufacturers.

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