Carbon fiber is all over the place these days. You can’t go anywhere without hearing about carbon fiber bikes and car bodies. Aerospace builders like Boeing and Airbus have been using carbon fiber for decades. So if the material is so good, why aren’t football helmets made out of the stuff? It seems like a carbon fiber helmet would be a no-brainer at a time when player safety is scrutinized in such detail.
Football helmet design has not changed much in the last 50 to 60 years. Helmets being worn by the pros are quite similar to those worn on high school football fields all across the country. The biggest difference is that the pros have their helmets custom fitted. Other than that, they are pretty much the same.
Rock West Composites, a supplier of composite materials and services in Salt Lake City, Utah, explains what most of us already know about carbon fiber: it is both stronger and lighter than steel. If it is strong enough to be used for airplane fuselage panels and wings, it ought to be good enough for football helmets. Right? Yes and no.
Carbon Fiber Positives
Carbon fiber has a lot going for it as a manufacturer material. In terms of helmets, you can already buy carbon fiber bike and motorcycle helmets. They are expensive, but they are out there. Their main appeal is their strength-to-weight ratio. As previously stated, carbon fiber is both stronger and lighter than steel. In fact, it is not even close. We are talking magnitudes here.
A lighter helmet is a godsend to a player. Carrying less weight around means better performance. It means faster speeds and better reaction times. And in terms of impact, less mass suggests that a carbon fiber helmet would not do as much damage on impact with an opposing player.
Carbon fiber would protect the wearer’s head better, too. With the right design, there should be no worries of failure on the field. A good, custom fit helmet could even last for a player’s entire career.
Carbon Fiber Negatives
As much as carbon fiber has going for it, there are also some negatives. These explain why carbon fiber is still not the preferred material for making football helmets. At the top of the list is cost.
Fabricating with carbon fiber is a labor-intensive process, especially when you are talking something like a football helmet. Add to that the cost of the raw materials and you have a product that is prohibitively expensive. Pro teams could probably afford carbon fiber helmets if they were available, but college and high school teams would be priced out. Thus, there is little incentive for manufacturers to make them.
Next up, carbon fiber failures are almost always catastrophic failures. The likelihood of a carbon fiber football helmet slowly breaking down over time is not very great. Rather, a helmet would seem fine one play and then shatter into thousands of pieces on the next. This is due primarily to delamination.
The problem with delamination is that it generally begins internally. You cannot see most carbon fiber cracks with the naked eye. But once delamination occurs, it is only a matter of time before catastrophic failure occurs.
Perhaps in the Future
For the time being, there are not a whole lot of manufacturers producing carbon fiber football helmets for the masses. There is at least one Chinese manufacturer making them, but they are definitely in the minority. Maybe that will change at some point in the future. For now, though, carbon fiber helmets will have to be left to cyclists and bikers.