You might think that selling something as seemingly innocuous as carbon fiber to certain countries is no big deal. If so, you’re thinking would be incorrect. Carbon fiber is on the list of materials U.S. businesses are not allowed to sell to certain countries – like Iran, for example. Get caught and you could do some serious prison time. An Iranian businessman recently convicted of selling carbon fiber illegally learned the hard way.
The businessman in question was originally detained in Germany when his crime was uncovered. He was then extradited to the U.S. where he pleaded guilty. He was recently sentenced to four years in federal prison. So, what’s the big deal?
Carbon Fiber in Weapons Design
It is no secret that carbon fiber is an attractive material for weapons design. Our own military works with scientists and tech companies to develop new weapons and technology using carbon fiber and other composites. That’s why we now have things like carbon fiber body armor and aircraft fuselage panels.
Here’s the thing: if we can use carbon fiber and other composites in our weapon designs, so can other countries. Therein lies the concern. In Iran’s case, we are concerned that they will use composite materials to advance their nuclear weapons program. A November 2019 report from Fox News indicates they may be doing just that.
Nose Cones and Rotors
According to Fox News, carbon fiber is an excellent material for fabricating missile nose cones and centrifuge rotors. Furthermore, both are integral to a nuclear missile defense system. Thus, it would make sense that we would not want American companies selling carbon fiber to an enemy, knowing what could be done with it.
In terms of the nose cones, carbon fiber has a lot of advantages. The folks at Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites explains that it is all in the material’s strength-to-weight ratio. Carbon fiber is stronger than both aluminum and steel yet also lighter. A lighter nosecone reduces the overall weight of a missile, making it easier to fly and more fuel-efficient. It also gives the missile a longer-range.
As for the centrifuge rotors, they are important to uranium enrichment. Uranium is transformed from a raw material into something that can be used for weapons via a process that gradually ‘purifies’ the uranium by spinning it through a series of centrifuges. The centrifuges have to be high-performance machines capable of withstanding a lot of punishment.
It turns out that carbon fiber stands up very well to the punishment of uranium enrichment. As such, we do not want countries like Iran having access to it. That’s why it’s a big deal to learn that carbon fiber is being purchased in the U.S. and shipped to Iran.
They Can Make Their Own
Common sense would dictate that countries unable to purchase carbon fiber on the open market could just make their own. They can. But at what cost? Producing virgin carbon fiber is a very costly exercise and one that requires a considerable amount of technology and expertise. Once the virgin material is produced, it then has to be fabricated into the desired part or parts. This costs more and takes more time.
A country like Iran wants to put its financial resources and scientific expertise into developing a nuclear program. They do not want to be bogged down having to produce their own carbon fiber. Thus, the attempt to buy the material on the open market.
So yes, it is a big deal to sell carbon fiber to some countries. Now you know why.