Tech Draft: It’s time for Formula 1 to embrace modern composites
In the modern age, not only is there a growing push for all of industry to exercise discretion and become more environmentally responsible and sustainable, and that includes global sports such as Formula 1.
But as more and more nations sign on to the many important international environmental treaties, agreements and conventions, the implications of environmental and sustainability policies trickle down, so the choices of industries are increasingly limited.
Targets have been set for F1 to be net zero carbon by 2030
Formula 1’s long-term corporate strategy is based on six strategic priorities, one of which is to deliver sustainable and efficient operations, and its main sustainability goals are to develop a future engine powered by sustainable fuels.
Become net zero carbon by 2030, have zero waste on and off the track, reduce carbon footprint at the grassroots and leave a lasting positive impact on the environment.
F1 is therefore executing many tactics in pursuit of its sustainability goals, the new power units for 2026 and the synthetic biofuel they will be powered with will significantly reduce the sport’s carbon dioxide output on the track.
F1 is changing the sequence of events for the season’s match so it can move around the world more efficiently, and even the way the sport is broadcast has already changed with a greater focus on remote operations from their headquarters in the UK so that less energy is spent on the logistics of moving equipment and personnel from one event to another.
It is the basic carbon footprint aspect, however, that this discussion will focus on, and ironically, as it will be mostly about carbon composites, it will be in the literal sense.
F1 composites are more than carbon fiber
Recently, another F1 outlet published an article written by a very experienced and respected former senior F1 engineer, who now works for F1 itself, discussing the possibility for sports manufacturers to complete the reduction of their carbon footprint by changing the composite materials it uses to make cars and much of its equipment.
Nevertheless, the article was not a balanced discussion because while it did explore some alternatives to the traditional carbon/Kevlar/epoxy composite matrices used in F1, it only evaluated the most obvious ones, but more importantly the article failed to recognize one obvious question that those with modern composite manufacturing experience would agree with: F1 relies heavily on outdated and inefficient production processes.
More sustainable and responsible composite alternatives
Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibers, those used in what is more colloquially known as carbon weaving, are organic materials that are synthesized into fibers and woven into fabric using a process that involves break down carbonaceous compounds under very high pressure and heat in excess of 3000°C, using large amounts of energy to do so.
The modern composites market is not devoid of other bio and organic alternatives to PAN materials, and some industry peers might even argue that these alternatives cannot provide adequate mechanical properties, but it is important to also recognize that all composite components that are manufactured for an F1 are structural in nature.
Regarding PAN fibers for structural weaves valid for F1 composite matrices, there are other interesting alternatives worthy of attention, such as polyethylene woven fabric, which can not only provide adequate mechanical and density properties, but which is a widely used and recyclable plastic, the fabric fibers can be made from recycled materials.
Interestingly also, putting aside alternatives to traditional carbon weaving, much of the industry’s research and development is moving towards the use of other industrial precursors, such as woody biomass in the synthesis of PAN fibers, which are much more sustainable than the fossil fuels currently used, and can come from waste wood residues and leftover wood harvesting.
Along the same lines, there is currently more R&D into making more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives to epoxy resin systems, aluminum honeycomb made from recycled materials, and more complicated and toxic products such as aramid materials, such as nomex core, and some have already made their way to market.
The autoclave is a dinosaur
It was around the time of World War II when the Germans were developing and refining the techniques for manufacturing PAN fiber when they realized its potential for structural component applications, especially in aerospace platforms, but this It was not until the 1960s that the use of carbon composites began to become widespread in this industrial sector, particularly in defense aerospace.
At that time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the manufacture of structural composite components required the use of the autoclave, which is essentially a pressure vessel furnace that uses control systems to manage the temperature, pressure and vacuum as the components cure.
The use of autoclaves was initially more cost effective than other non-clave manufacturing methods, as the combination of pressure and vacuum allowed the draped fabric to take on complex geometries, almost completely smoothed out voids in cured parts, and offered much better control over the resulting laminate. thickness.
F1 teams typically use large-scale autoclaves with an internal working diameter of three meters and an internal working length of 9m which allow for accelerated manufacturing schedules as the larger internal volume allows for larger components, such as monocoque vessels, and larger quantities of smaller components. be “cooked” at the same time.
The full-scale autoclave is a monster, with external dimensions of approximately 4.5m wide, 4.0m high, 9.2m long, weighing 40,000kg and powered by 600 volts drawing 120 amps at load. It is very expensive capital, very expensive to operate and barely efficient in terms of energy consumption.
It’s time for the manufacture of F1 composites to be more environmentally friendly
Nonetheless, over time since the dawn of composite manufacturing, technologies have developed, particularly in the areas of modular and bendable tool design, viscosity-modified resin systems, and more fabric geometries. drapable.
These are more durable and less energy intensive out of clave manufacturing processes, such as resin transfer, vacuum assisted resin transfer, resin infusion and even rapid prototyping, or composite methods three-dimensionally printed products produce structural components with finished void and controlled laminate thickness with fast and efficient turnaround times.
Composite manufacturing will have a very valid place in F1 for many years to come, but many of the materials and processes used are no longer as cutting-edge as they once were portrayed.
By stepping out of their comfort zone and embracing modern alternatives, not only will the industry be back at the forefront of using modern composite techniques, but it will also do so in a much more sustainable way. and environmentally responsible, and more in line with the sports own stated goals.