What If Carbon Fiber Falls into the Wrong Hands?

Mention carbon fiber and most of us think about things like sports cars and commercial jumbo jets. We rarely think of it as something that must be kept out of the ‘wrong hands’. But apparently carbon fiber falling into the wrong hands is a real thing. It is so real that three Iranian nationals were recently charged with attempting to smuggle carbon fiber from the U.S. to their home country.

It turns out that carbon fiber can be used for a lot of nefarious purposes. As such, the U.S. government takes a pretty hard line against exporting carbon fiber to certain nations. Iran just happens to be one of them. The fear with Iran is that they will use the material in a uranium enrichment program that will eventually produce a nuclear bomb.

A Five-Year Plot Foiled

The Jewish News Syndicate reported in mid-July that three Iranian nationals recently charged by the U.S. Department of Justice had spent the five years between 2008 and 2013 obtaining carbon fiber in the United States and transferring it to Iran.

The plan was fairly simple. Pose as legitimate buyers to obtain carbon fiber in the States, then have it shipped to a country legally able to accept it. From there, ship it to another country, and another, until it eventually ends up in Iran without anyone asking questions. This is allegedly what took place during those five years.

It’s not quite clear how much carbon fiber the three men were able to procure. It’s also not clear what they intended to do with it. The only thing the Jewish News Syndicate report stated was that the material is critical to uranium enrichment.

We can make a guess as to why they wanted carbon fiber. Based on a limited knowledge of how uranium is enriched, it was probably used to construct the centrifuge tubes that are the core of uranium enrichment.

How Uranium is Enriched

Uranium is similar to most other elements in that it is found naturally in multiple varieties. Each variety is known as an isotope. Uranium-235 is the isotope used to create nuclear reactors and bombs. Unfortunately, it only accounts for less than 1% of the total uranium in nature. On the other hand, uranium-238 accounts for 99% of it.

Uranium enrichment is the process of spinning uranium-238 in a series of specialized centrifuges in order to extract uranium-235 from it. Yet it’s not as simple as it sounds. The uranium first has to be converted from a solid to a gas. Then it is spun in one centrifuge and passed on to another. This continues down a line of centrifuges that continuously spin the gas until the desired amount of uranium-235 is achieved. That material is then converted back into a metal.

Carbon Fiber up to the Task

Any carbon fiber procured for a uranium enrichment program would likely go into building the centrifuge tubes. We already know that the tubes are made of either steel or composite materials able to withstand the incredible pressures the spinning process creates.

Carbon fiber certainly fits the bill, according to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites, because it is stronger and lighter than steel. But Rock West says fabricating carbon fiber into centrifuge tubes requires a level of skill and sophistication that is not easy to come by.

At any rate, it is possible for carbon fiber to fall into the wrong hands. If it does, then what? Now we know why the U.S. government takes such a hardline stand when it comes to carbon fiber exports.