Carbon fibre used to be exclusive, special; but that was in the 1960s, when you had to have a few million dollars to spare (say, on a US Air Force jet) to get some. Nowadays, it's lost that cachet, and you'll find it in tennis rackets, in-line skates, mountain bikes, fishing rods, cars... it's almost harder not to buy it.

As often happens, it was the US's military-industrial complex that gave this product its start in life. The recipe is, bake graphite (the "lead" in pencils) in an air-free oven at a few hundred degrees Centigrade. The result? Thin fibres which are enormously strong: weight-for-weight, nine times stronger than aluminium, 30 times stronger than steel.

Like diamond (which is also made of pure carbon), the fibres' strength comes from a simple structure. They don't stretch and don't compress. Swathe them together and they won't bend either. And carbon is plentiful, and light. Superman chose the wrong material to be made of.

The first uses were in jet turbine blades, but the comparative ease of the production process meant that others soon caught up. Nowadays, the Far East produces most of the world's millions of tonnes of carbon fibre - which has led to some worries in the US, where they think the aerospace industry might be threatened by its reliance on that supply. Maybe they'll just have to take it from their golf clubs, racing yacht masts, briefcases, and who knows, cannibalise the occasional Stealth Bomber. Meanwhile, we can all enjoy it elsewhere.

It's the expensive toys that have carbon fibre lavished on them, like the 1997 Rothmans Williams Renault (below). The mostly carbon fibre Lola 'Ultimate Bike', an aerodynamic miracle that weighs 1.6kg and clocks 200mph, was sold by auctioneers Bonhams last month for pounds 23,000

The 6-million-candlepower Maxa-Beam searchlight (right), designed for military search-and-rescue missions, supplies enough light from 5km away to allow a newspaper to be read. pounds 2,750 + VAT, from Spymaster, 3 Portman Square, London W1 (0171-486 3885)

Fast, flashy and promising toes and ankles the ultimate in carbon- fibre protection, the Bauer RH 5000 Composite hockey boot is pounds 345, from Skate Attack, 95 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, London NW5 (0171-267 6961). Right: the United States Air Force Stealth bomber (not for sale)

Dunhill's AD2000 carbon-fibre pens (right) cost pounds 295 for a ballpoint, pounds 575 for a fountain pen, are virtually unbreakable, and are leakproof at any altitude. For stockists, call 0171-290 8600. Carbon-fibre Rossignol Cut 10.4 Super L skis (below), pounds 249.95, pounds 299.50 with binding, from Snow+Rock (mail order, 01932 569569)