According to a rumor making the rounds last week, Apple is said to be exploring potential for using more exotic materials in the next revision MacBook Air. Appleinsider’s Kasper Jade reports that scuttlebutt suggests Apple is unsatisfied with the Air’s three-pound weight and looking into substituting carbon fiber as a fabrication material for a structural component currently cast from heavier aircraft-grade aluminum.
Carbon fiber is an extremely strong, lightweight and very expensive composite material — a species of fiber-reinforced plastic analogically similar to familiar glass-reinforced plastic (“fiberglass”). Carbon fibers themselves are only one component of the material’s composite matrix, the other being some sort of plastic resin such as epoxy, polyester, vinyl ester or nylon. Some nominal “carbon fiber” composites also contain other fibers like kevlar, aluminum, polypropylene, or glass fiber reinforcement.
Carbon fiber itself (a tip of the hat to Wikipedia here) consists of extremely thin fibers about 0.0002–0.0004 inches (0.005–0.010 mm) in diameter and composed mostly of carbon atoms bonded together in microscopic crystals which are roughly aligned parallel to the long axis of the fiber. This crystal alignment makes the fiber incredibly strong for its bulk and weight. Several thousand carbon fibers are twisted together to form a yarn, which may be used by itself or woven into a fabric of extremely high strength-to-weight ratio material.
This combination of qualities has made carbon fiber composites a popular, albeit expensive, choice for use in aerospace, sailboat, sporting, musical instrument, consumer products, motor racing and motorcycle industries, where it’s been incorporated in everything from aircraft parts and laptop computers to bicycle frames and drum shells.
Full-Size Laptop — Subcompact Weight
Apple would certainly not be the first to use carbon fiber (or more accurately Carbon fiber reinforced plastic — CFRP or CRP) in the fabrication of laptop computer enclosures. Sony’s VAIO TX series notebooks have housings made of carbon fiber. MPC’s U1000, which debuted more than two years ago, is also made with carbon fiber — a traditional-sized laptop in a subcompact 4 pound package — lighter than either the unibody 13″ MacBook or the erstwhile 12″ PowerBook.
Drawing perhaps on its association with the 2008 World Constructors’ Champion Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 motor racing team, which it sponsors, Acer’s gorgeous (at least to my sense of aesthetics) series of Ferrari 1000, Ferrari 1100, Ferrari 4000, and Ferrari 5000 PC laptops all incorporate carbon fiber in their enclosures. The Acer Ferrari 4000 was claimed to be the first notebook to employ a carbon fiber casing. Voodoo PC’s M:50 and Envy 133 laptops also use carbon fiber in their chassis.
For a visualization of what a carbon fiber MacBook might look like, check out this Gizmodo report. It’s faux carbon fiber, but emulates the look.
High-Tech Materials Bragging Right Motivation?
Kasper Jade cites unnamed sources familiar with Apple’s R&D efforts saying the likelihood would be that Cupertino would replace the Air’s lower aluminum case, or bottom cover, with one constructed from carbon fiber, which would raise production costs but shave upwards of a 100 grams off the notebook, dropping its weight from a hair over 3 pounds to approximately 2.78 pounds. Not a radical weight reduction, but it would also give Apple another high-tech materials bragging right, which we can speculate may be a big part of the motivation. Jade also suggests that while this is still strictly a rumor, it’s believed a MacBook Air carbon fiber bottom is far enough along in development that it could appear in the Air’s next revision, which in the usual scheme of things would be in the spring of 2009.