In the modern era not only is there a growing impetus for all industry to use their discretion and become more environmentally responsible and sustainable, and that includes global sports such as Formula 1.
But as more nations sign up to the numerous and important international environmental treaties, agreements, and conventions, the implications of the environmental and sustainability policies are flowed downward so that the choices for industries have become increasingly more limited.
Targets have been set for F1 to be net carbon zero 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 key sustainability goals are to develop a future engine that is powered by sustainable fuels.
To become net zero carbon by 2030, to have zero waste on and off track, to reduce the carbon footprint back at base, and to leave a lasting positive impact on the environment.
Consequentially, F1 is executing many tactics in its pursuance of accomplishing its sustainability objectives, the new for 2026 power units and the synthetic bio-fuel with which they will be powered will significantly reduce the carbon dioxide output of the sport on-track.
F1 is changing the sequence of events in the season fixture so that it can move around the globe in a more efficient manner, and even the way in which 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 event to event.
It is the aspect of the carbon footprint back at base, though, that this discussion will focus on, and ironically as it will be primarily about carbon composites it will be in a literal sense.
F1 composites are more than just carbon fibre
Recently, another F1 media outlet published an article that was authored by a very experienced and respected ex-senior F1 engineer, who is now working for F1 itself, discussing whether the sports constructors might be able to complement the reduction of their carbon footprint back at base by changing the composite materials that it uses to manufacture the cars and much of its equipment.
Nevertheless, the article wasn’t a balanced discussion because whilst it did indeed explore some alternatives to the traditional carbon/Kevlar/epoxy composite matrices used in F1, it only evaluated the most obvious ones, but importantly the article didn’t acknowledge the one obvious issue that those with modern composites manufacturing experience would agree with: F1 heavily leans on outdated and inefficient production processes.
More sustainable and responsible composites alternatives
Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibres, those that are used in what is more colloquially called carbon weave, are organics that are synthesised into fibres and woven into the fabric using a process that involves breaking down the carbonaceous compounds under very high pressure and heat exceeding 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 can’t provide adequate mechanical properties, but it is important to acknowledge also that not all composite components that are manufactured for an F1 are structural in nature.
Insofar as PAN fibres for structural weaves valid for F1 composite matrices are concerned, there are other interesting alternatives worthy of consideration, such as polyethene weaved fabric, which can not only provide adequate mechanical and density properties but is a widely used plastic that is recyclable, the fabric fibres can be manufactured using recycled sourced material.
Interestingly as well, putting alternatives to traditional carbon weave aside, much industry research and development is going into using other industrial pre-cursors, such as wood biomass in the synthesising of PAN fibres, which are far more sustainable than the fossil fuels currently used, and can be sourced from waste wood residuals and timber harvest leftovers.
In a similar vein, there is currently more R&D going into the manufacture of more sustainable and environmentally responsible alternatives to epoxy resin systems, aluminium honeycomb manufactured using recycled material, and more complicated and toxic nasties such as aramid materials, such as nomex coring, and some have already made their way to the market.
The autoclave is a dinosaur
It was in the World War II era when the Germans were developing and refining the manufacturing techniques for PAN fibres when they realised its potential for structural component applications, particularly in aerospace platforms, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s when the use of carbon composites started to become mainstream in that industry sector, especially in defence 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 oven that uses control systems to manage temperature, pressure, and vacuum whilst components are curing.
The use of autoclaves was initially better value than other out-of-clave manufacturing methods because the combination of pressure and vacuum allowed draped cloth to take up complex geometries, almost completely mitigated voids in cured parts, and provided much better control over the resultant laminate thickness.
F1 teams generally use large-scale autoclaves with a three-metre working internal diameter and a 9m internal working length that enable accelerated manufacturing schedules because the larger internal volume allows for larger components, such as monocoque tubs, and larger quantities of smaller components all to be ‘baked’ at the same time.
The large-scale autoclave is a behemoth, with exterior dimensions of approximately 4.5m wide, 4.0m high, 9.2m long, a weight of 40,000kg, and is powered by 600 volts drawing 120 amps at load. It is a very expensive piece of capital, very expensive to run, and hardly efficient in power usage at all.
Time for F1 composites manufacturing to be more environmentally responsible
Nevertheless, as time has passed since the dawn of composites manufacture, and technologies have developed, particularly in the areas of modular and collapsible tooling design, modified viscosity resin systems, and more drapable cloth geometries.
These are more sustainable and less energy-hungry out of clave manufacturing processes, such as resin transfer, vacuum assisted resin transfer, resin infusion, and even rapid prototyping, or three-dimensionally printed composite methods are producing structural components with finite void and laminate thickness control with effective fast-tracked schedule turn arounds.
Composite manufacture 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 were once portrayed to be.
By stepping outside of their comfort zone and embracing modern alternatives not only will the industry be back at the forefront of utilising modern composites techniques, but it will also be doing so in a much more environmentally sustainable and responsible way, and more in line with the sports own stated goals.