To produce a carbon fiber, the carbon atoms are bonded together in crystals that are more or less aligned parallel to the long axis of the fiber as the crystal alignment gives the fiber high strength-to-volume ratio (making it strong for its size). Several thousand carbon fibers are bundled together to form a tow, which may be used by itself or woven into a fabric.
The properties of carbon fibers, such as high stiffness, high tensile strength, low weight, high chemical resistance, high temperature tolerance and low thermal expansion, make them very popular in aerospace, civil engineering, military, and motorsports, along with other competition sports. However, they are relatively expensive when compared with similar fibers, such as glass fibers or plastic fibers.
Carbon fibers are usually combined with other materials to form a composite. When combined with a plastic resin and wound or molded it forms carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (often referred to as carbon fiber) which has a very high strength-to-weight ratio, and is extremely rigid although somewhat brittle. However, carbon fibers are also composited with other materials, such as graphite, to form carbon-carbon composites, which have a very high heat tolerance.