Surface chemistry unleashing the full potential of carbon fibres 

IFM’s surface chemistry and interface team has a growing body of research that is expanding the use of carbon fibres by imbuing the material with tailored functionality – from changing its colour to giving it the ability to absorb and store energy – using reliable, scalable and rapid surface modification techniques.

IFM’s surface chemistry and interface team has a growing body of research that is expanding the use of carbon fibres by imbuing the material with tailored functionality – from changing its colour to giving it the ability to absorb and store energy – using reliable, scalable and rapid surface modification techniques.

Carbon fibre is one of the strongest materials in the world but with its strength comes limitations, particularly when it comes to its functionality. This is now changing.  

IFM’s surface chemistry and interface team has a growing body of research that is expanding the use of carbon fibres by imbuing the material with tailored functionality – from changing its colour to giving it the ability to absorb and store energy – using reliable, scalable and rapid surface modification techniques.  

‘We have given carbon fibres new and previously-thought-impossible functionality,’ says team leader Professor Luke Henderson.  

‘The surface of carbon fibres is quite inert and very little will react with it, to the detriment of the final material.

“Our focus is the development and implementation of surface modification techniques that allows us to install a chemistry on the fibre surface that is for a specific application. At the moment it’s a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.’ 

So far, the team has had their work funded by industry partners such as Boeing, SABIC, Solvay, Fortescue Metals group, Rolls Royce, Ford USA, Gen2Carbon (formerly ELG carbon fibre) and CASS Foundation, as well as Australian Government funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council. 

And already, the team has made significant discoveries.  

Carbon graphite is black and, in the past, there were only two ways to change the colour of carbon fibres – either painting the surface or weaving the fibres with a dyed fabric. 

In their discovery, the team made modifications to the fibre that turned the carbon fibres an electric blue colour. 

‘The real kick is that it works by the same mechanism as nature’s way to generate blue colours,” Prof. Henderson says. 

‘Blue in nature is very hard to generate with a pigment – what it does is use the wavelengths of light to interact with each other.  

‘It’s the same way that butterflies and peacocks generate their iridescent blue. So we went with a bio-inspired colour generation theme rather than a pigment approach.’ 

Through their study, the team found further benefits to the surface modification. In addition to now being able to change carbon fibres to a variety of colours, the treatment also makes the material stronger and stiffer – in some cases up to 30 percent in tensile strength – a strength improvement via a treatment that Prof Henderson says is unheard of. 

‘This is beneficial, because a carbon fibre that is stronger and stiffer, yet still light-weight, significantly increases its value,’ Prof. Henderson says. 

This is an edited extract of a ‘Real-world Impact’ article that will be featured in our 2021 Annual Report – keep an eye out for its release. 

Professor Luke Henderson will be speaking at the Pint of Science Festival event at Little Creatures Geelong on May 10. The topic of the night will be: ‘Clues from nature to help society: from engineering and medicine to solving crimes’.