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Marmolejo, a 26-year-old Anaheim resident, works in a factory that presses spools of carbon fiber into dense yet lightweight material that can be used in almost anything, from bicycles to bombers. It’s the new plastic, and though everybody wants it, the Pentagon is getting much of it. Driven by record military spending and a seemingly bottomless appetite for the stuff, the Pentagon has almost single-handedly produced a yearlong global carbon-fiber shortage.
Demand for carbon fiber is so far ahead of supply that Marmolejo says his company is turning down orders it can no longer fill. He worries that his days there are numbered.
“There’ve been carbon shortages before, but not like this,” Marmolejo said during a tour of Anchor Products Inc., a tiny factory in a nondescript business park in Anaheim. “It used to be that the shortage would cause carbon prices to go up. Now you just can’t find any carbon at any price. We’ve had to turn down jobs because we don’t have any material. All of it’s going to the military. I’ve heard rumors that Boeing is buying a lot of it up.”
Carbon fiber made its first documentedappearance in Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Then it was made from cotton and bamboo; in the 1950s, Japanese, British and American scientists produced carbon fiber from a chemical compound called polyacrylonitrile. At first, it was used for golf clubs, boats and other sporting equipment. Today, it’s a key ingredient in huge—and hugely expensive—weapons systems: the F22 Stealth fighter, the Blackhawk helicopter, the unmanned Predator drone, body armor, helmets and holsters.
Long-distance air travel also drives demand. Take Boeing’s much-vaunted 787 Dreamliner. Scheduled to start operating in 2008, the goliath commercial jet is billed as the first passenger jet able to fly nonstop between London and Sydney. The reason is carbon fiber’s lightness; half of the Dreamliner will be made of carbon fiber. So will the Airbus SAS Superjumbo A380 and A350, projected to fly in 2006 and 2010, respectively. Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratories is also experimenting with carbon fiber to make a solar sail that may one day propel spacecraft at unimaginably high speeds.
The rise in military and aerospace demandfor carbon fiber has forced American companies that rely on the stuff for consumer uses to find alternatives. According to E-Composites.com, an online journal for the carbon-fiber industry, Werner Paddles of Sultan, Washington, the world’s largest manufacturer of composite kayak paddles, is running out of raw materials. On Oct. 18, the journal noted that Calfee Design, a La Selva, California-based bicycle manufacturer, has begun replacing carbon fiber with bamboo for its newer bikes.
The fact that carbon fiber is in such short supply for anyone outside the Pentagon and giant aerospace firms like Boeing doesn’t surprise Phil Collins, an assistant professor of physics at UC Irvine.
“If you are a small manufacturer of bike frames or tennis rackets, you can’t throw your weight around like the military,” Collins said. “If there’s a shortage, you’re at the bottom of the list. And when there’s a war on, there just might not be enough.”
According to Collins, carbon is ideal for military and aerospace uses because it is the lightest and strongest solid on the face of the earth.
“Next to carbon on the periodic table you have oxygen, hydrogen and helium,” Collins said. “They’re lighter than carbon, but they’re gases and you can’t make anything out of them . . . You can outfit a Humvee with carbon fiber, and it’s going to be 100 times lighter than other material like stainless steel or titanium.”
At UC Irvine, Collins experiments with carbon nanotubes, which are even tinier than fibers. They’re also much more expensive, which explains why, outside high-end golf clubs and tennis rackets, they’re used mainly in research. “It would cost millions and millions of dollars to outfit a tank with them,” he said.
In contrast, carbon fiber is relatively cheap to produce, so cheap that Collins says production has shifted to relatively few manufacturers, most of them in Asia. “In the past, Dow Chemicals used to make this stuff,” he said. “Now it wouldn’t surprise me if most of the production moved offshore a long time ago.”
Marmolejo started making finishedcarbon fiber at Anchor Products nine years ago, when he was a 17-year-old high school senior. Back then, the company had five employees, one of them his dad. When the carbon-fiber shortage hit a year ago, the company started laying off employees. His dad was laid off two months ago; Marmolejo is the last man standing.
His main job is to spool carbon fiber—a microscopically thin, inch-wide spool containing tens of thousands of individual strands—into a heated press. He showed me around the equipment, and I couldn’t help feeling like we were in a museum of technology that, though cutting-edge, is already obsolete. “We put the rolls on this creel and run it through these slots; it goes through the machine, which melts it together with a yarn,” he said. “Each roll takes about 45 minutes. We can make rolls up to 24 inches wide, and when business was really good, we’d make about 15 to 20 rolls in a day.”
Things aren’t nearly as busy now. “It used to be that we had a salesman and a buyer working for us, but now I do all that myself,” Marmolejo said. “I do a little bit of everything. I know a big company that buys carbon, and I call them and they tell me if they have any carbon and where I can find it.”
At the moment, Marmolejo said, he’s got enough carbon fiber to last another month or so. His only customer is a defense contractor Marmolejo refused to name. “They’re pretty secretive; they don’t even tell us what they use the carbon for,” he said. “Once this order is done, our company is probably going to go bankrupt. I’m going paycheck to paycheck.”
What the global market takes with one hand, though, it gives with another. Marmolejo’s factory shares a warehouse with HSH Interplan Inc., a company that sells specialty paint for airplanes. HSH may be the source of his next paycheck. The company has offered him a six-month contract to paint airplanes, with just one catch: he’ll be painting them in Colombia, which, after Iraq and Afghanistan, is probably the world’s most dangerous country.
“It’s my only option right now,” he said. “The pay is good, but you have to work 12 to 18 hours a day for a month at a time, and there are no days off.”
Marmolejo said he expects to make a decision in the next week or so. “I think I’ll take the job,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about Colombia, but I’ll do my best to stay out of trouble.”