When ‘destruction’ and ‘carbon fiber’ are mentioned in the same sentence, it’s usually because people are talking about how strong and durable carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs) are. But if you are a researcher looking into ways to build better satellites, you might be thinking in the opposite direction. You might want a carbon fiber product you can completely destroy without leaving any trace behind.
That moment the complete destruction of carbon fiber becomes a necessity is the same moment you rethink how CFRPs are made. It is an interesting position to be in given what we know about carbon fiber and other composites.
Carbon fiber is normally chosen as a replacement for steel and aluminum because of its strength-to-weight ratio. As explained by Utah-based Rock West Composites, carbon fiber is stronger than both steel and aluminum. It is also lighter. That makes it an ideal material for manufacturing everything from aircraft fuselage panels to rocket bodies.
So why would you want to destroy it completely? For that answer, we turn to the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Clean Space Initiative. The ESA is working as hard as it can to eliminate space debris. They believe carbon fiber could play a significant role here.
Satellites Disintegrate on Reentry
With all of the satellites humanity launches every year, you would think outer space is getting crowded. But it’s not. Very few of those satellites are designed to be permanent. When the satellite reaches its end of life, the most common way to dispose of it is to send it plunging back toward Earth. Upon reentry, the satellite completely disintegrates under high heat. At least that’s the theory.
The problem is that it is still possible for parts of a satellite to survive reentry. That puts humans on the ground at risk. Needless to say you might not survive the impact of space debris hitting you in the head, even if you were talking the smallest pieces. The ESA wants to eliminate all of the dangers of space debris by coming up with new ways to build satellites so that nothing survives reentry. Enter carbon fiber.
Burning Up Carbon Fiber
Solving the space debris problem means producing new materials. To that end, the ESA has been working with a variety of researchers on a carbon fiber reinforced polymer composite that could be used to manufacture satellite parts. They have already tested their composite on something known as a magnetotorquer.
A magnetotorquer is a component within a satellite designed to control its path by interacting with the earth’s magnetic field. The component built by the ESA’s researchers included an external shell built with their carbon fiber polymer.
To test the carbon fiber’s performance during reentry, researchers placed a part in a plasma wind tunnel and simulated the environment. This exposed the magnetotorquer to heat equivalent of thousands of degrees Celsius. Much to the delight of researchers, the carbon fiber disintegrated completely. There was nothing left of it at the conclusion of the test.
Researchers have proved they can create a carbon fiber polymer strong enough to withstand being launched into outer space and maintaining operations for the life of a satellite. And when it’s time to destroy said satellite, the carbon fiber will disintegrate completely upon reentry. It is a major breakthrough that could mean big things for managing space debris.
Knowing what we know about carbon fiber, it’s somewhat interesting to learn that scientists are attempting to create a carbon fiber polymer they can completely destroy. But that’s exactly what they are doing.