Carbon fiber is a material which is being used increasingly for military, civil, motorsport, competition sport and consumer product applications with each passing year.
It began its rise to prominence in the aerospace industry in the 1950s because it allowed for air and spacecraft to become faster and run more efficiently. Its exceptionally high heat tolerance also meant that spacecraft could be made to resist the intense heat experienced on atmospheric re-entry. Carbon fiber went on to feature in experimental military aircraft and is now making its way into the civil aviation sector – more than half of the material used in the construction of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is carbon fiber composite.
Although it took two or three decades for the change to occur following the aerospace industry embracing carbon fiber, the next industry to adopt the material’s widespread use was motorsport, more specifically Formula 1. The McLaren MP4/1 of 1981 was the first carbon-fiber-bodied Formula 1 car which led to the material being used in the sport universally today. Today’s NASCAR racers are also seeing carbon fiber body parts being incorporated into their designs. The main two advantages of its application in motorsport are the weight saving it brings, meaning the cars can go faster than if they were made out of traditional metals, and the improved driver safety because of the material’s great strength.
Carbon fiber usage pioneered by the aerospace and motorsports industries has also trickled down into consumer product applications in recent years – carbon fiber bicycles, golf clubs and laptops immediately spring to mind.
So what is the superyacht industry doing? It appears builders are waking up to the benefits of using it in superyacht construction. Despite carbon fiber being used for constructing yacht sections or appendages for some time now, only the past two years have seen the emergence of full carbon fiber superyacht projects. Probably the most recognisable of these projects are McConaghy Boats’ Adastra trimaran and Palmer Johnson’s Supersport range, which features superyachts in 35, 42, 48 and 72-metre guises.
The initial outlay for this new generation of superyachts will be larger than required for a vessel of similar size and specification constructed out of steel because of the cost of the material itself and the construction methods which need to be employed to use the material on such a large scale. Despite production and manufacturing costs still being relatively high, it is worth mentioning that they are decreasing each year as demand for carbon fiber usage increases and the manufacturing technologies continue to improve.
The main benefit to reap from carbon fiber construction in yachting terms is dramatically-reduced weight compared to steel, meaning faster travel, greater range and significantly-improved fuel efficiency. This means that in the medium to long-term, there is potential for initial outlay costs to be offset by savings in fuel. The material’s innate strength also means that it will be able to withstand very heavy seas with ease.
Due to its high-tech nature, many make the incorrect assumption that carbon fiber is difficult to maintain, however when compared to steel, it is arguably easier because carbon fiber is not a metal and therefore there is no chance of it beginning to rust. Naturally the material does need maintaining somewhat to ensure its condition over time.
It will take time for the superyacht industry to fully embrace carbon fiber construction, however the writing is already on the wall – it appears that it is now only a matter of time before the industry wholly adopts the material for the construction of its floating pleasure palaces. It’s the beginning of an exciting new age!