When it comes to mobility technology, cool materials have often driven product innovation, from aircraft aluminum to titanium. However, while many debate to this day the merits of one material over another, one technology trumps them all when it comes to the ultimate cool factor: carbon fiber.
Composite materials, commonly called carbon fiber, are nothing new in the wheelchair world. Both Quickie and Invacare, for example, offered carbon-fiber wheelchairs some 20 years ago. However, the products focused more on the material than function — that is, carbon fiber was a cool material used to make somewhat awkward wheelchair designs.
However, today, form has caught up with function, where composite materials are allowing radical design shifts, making ultralight wheelchair technology both ultra-cool and highly-functional.
Morphing the Wheel
If you have ever tried stowing a manual wheelchair in a tight space, you know that the wheels, typically 24 inches in diameter, are a bit awkward, not always fitting where wished. Morph Wheels addresses this with its folding wheel. As the name suggests, Morph Wheels … well, morph from a composite, round wheelchair wheel to a folded oval shape. Rather than an unwieldy 24-inch diameter, Morph Wheels fold to 32 by 12.5 inches — a dimension that even fits most airline overhead compartments. To fold the wheel, you release a latch and the wheel collapses, squeezing together, one side toward the other, right down to fitting in a duffel bag. With a wheel structure made of a glass-filled nylon composite, Morph wheels remain lighter than traditional mag wheels. At just 7.5 lbs. each, they are fully ANSI/RESNA-tested to a user weight of 265 pounds.
If you’re looking for the lightest wheels on Earth, a pair of Topolino Carbon Core WX 2.5 24-inch wheels weighs in at a scant 2.5 pounds each (minus tires and hand rims). The secret is in the carbon fiber and Kevlar hybrid spokes, and carbon-composite hub, bonded together into a super-light, strong, one-piece structure. Whereas typical spoke wheels feature individual spokes spanning from the hub outward, the Carbon Core WX 2.5 wheel runs the spokes from rim-to-rim, fused to the hub in the center. The result is an extremely efficient wheel that, due to the properties of carbon fiber and Kevlar, features exceptional dampening qualities, offering a smooth ride. Available with yellow or red accent colors, Carbon Core WX 2.5 wheels are available in 24 and 25-inch sizes.
More Carbon Fiber Magic
Backrests on ultralight wheelchairs have long been a source of compromise. A hard-shell back adds great support, but also adds weight. ADI’s CF Series of a true carbon fiber shell weighs just .825 pound, with a well-padded and durable nylon cover rounding out the back. Widths and heights from 10 to 20 inches are available, as are three contour styles. Fixed, quick-release, and width-adjustable mounting hardware is available, as well as angle-adjustable. For the complete carbon-fiber package, ADI also offers carbon-fiber seat pans, and folding carbon-fiber side guards. ADI is a custom outfitter, so individual components can be ordered, or they will take delivery of a new wheelchair and outfit it accordingly.
For the ultimate in carbon fiber, Europe’s Panthera X (now distributed in the United States by Triumph Mobility), claims to be the world’s lightest wheelchair at 10 pounds complete. And to lift the Panthera X is to believe — it’s mind-blowing light. Made almost entirely of carbon fiber — a few parts, the exception — the Panthera X features a minimalistic, rigid frame designed to offer full high-performance wheelchair function while capitalizing on carbon fiber’s ultralight and forming characteristics. Seat widths range from 13 to 18 inches, with a fold-down back rounding out the seating. All wheel, brake, and most accessory options are available as well. Now, while the Panthera X is claimed to be the lightest manual wheelchair in the world, it might also be the most expensive, at approximately $10,000. However, from the inexplicably light weight to its jaw-dropping form, the Panthera X truly is a work of art.
It is important to note that while carbon fiber is a light, strong material, with forming characteristics that create a stunning aesthetic, it’s not an end-all material. Impacts and scratches can compromise carbon fiber’s structure, so if you’re very hard on equipment, carbon fiber might not be the best material for you. But if you’re wanting the coolest of the cool, go carbon fiber.
• ADI, 888/684-2234; www.adirides.com
• Morph Wheels, 973/628-7600; www.morphwheels.com
• Panthera, 902/542-9835; www.panthera.se (U.S.,triumphmobility.com)
• Topolino Tech, 203/278-4711; www.topolinotech.com