- A material first isolated using sticky tape could transform the capabilities of everything from aircraft and electric cars to wind turbines and fire protection
- 200 times stronger than steel, flexible, tough, transparent and a superconductor
A material discovered using sticky tape to pull flakes from a lump of graphite is ready to transform almost every area of technology, from aircraft and electric cars to wind turbines and batteries. Often described as a wonder material because of properties that include strength 200 times higher than steel while also being flexible, transparent and a superconductor, graphene has been in R&D since its first isolation at The University of Manchester in 2004.
“Being just one atom thick, single layer graphene is the first and only two dimensional material that we are currently able to isolate and work with,” explains Ian Constance, chief executive of the Advanced Propulsion Centre. “But despite vast global interest and funding from governments, academic institutions, investors and industry, so far it has only been used in specialist, and niche products. When are we going to see graphene deliver the promise and begin to transform the products that surround us? And what needs to be done to make it happen?”
To answer these questions, the APC brought leading specialists to the home of graphene where they were asked ‘2D or Not 2D’.
“We learnt that materials development is a lot like other areas of technology development,” says Constance. “The APC is funded by government to help low emissions powertrain innovation bridge the gap from research to commercialisation, helping innovators with the challenging industrialisation stage that is often known as the Valley of Death. Today we learnt that graphene is about to embark on the next phase of its journey and is ready for rapid adoption.”
Learning to design with graphene
Professor of Materials Science Ian Kinloch of The University of Manchester set the scene by stating that the challenge is to move from perfect laboratory samples to perfect bulk materials on an industrial scale. Commercial supply will allow graphene to be used in many ways, of which mixing with plastic (such as epoxy) is showing the greatest potential.
“Graphene-plastic composites could be used to replace metals in the manufacture of aircraft and cars, making them lighter and more fuel efficient. Graphene can make plastics conductive, so can be used to protect carbon fibre aircraft wings against lightning strikes and prevent sparks from static electricity in the fuel lines and tanks of vehicles,” Professor Kinloch told the delegates gathered in the university’s beautiful arts-and-crafts-style Whitworth Hall. “It can be used to enable cost-saving materials substitution and a whole host of other applications, most of which have not even been thought of.”
Jacqui Murray of Innovate UK, took up the theme by highlighting the need for a step change in engineers’ understanding of new materials. “Engineers are understandably cautious, especially in sectors like automotive and aerospace where issues like fatigue and repairability are safety critical. They are comfortable with traditional materials and quickly embrace each new evolution,” she explained. “This creates a barrier to the adoption of new materials that need to be overcome if we are to achieve the step change we need in areas like weight reduction that are so important to both product performance and for the environment.”
HiETA’s Henry Greenhalgh followed by extending the challenge to new manufacturing techniques, pointing out that the use of graphene in additive manufacturing allows engineers to specify properties and structures that most currently don’t know are possible. “They need to understand what they can ask for,” he commented. “So far, additive manufacturing has used materials designed for other processes such as casting and forging. Graphene offers an opportunity to manufacture remarkable new structures that make radically different design approaches possible.”
Moving to the issue of price, Dr Marek Burda of Cametics showed how designing for the material can lead to significant cost savings, mentioning a range of commercial products that already offer superior affordability because of graphene. Taking a look into the next generation of products, Stephen Voller of Zap&Go gave a sleeves rolled-up view of today’s electric vehicle battery technology, pointing out how a rethink in the design of the battery pack, using graphene as the enabler, will deliver greater benefits and bigger total system cost savings than any anticipated advance in battery chemistry.
The same is true in manufacturing, demonstrated by an example from Profession Kinloch in which a tyre manufacturer cut cycle times by using graphene to remove heat from moulds 20 percent more quickly; “That’s a substantial improvement in utilisation and return on capital.”
Professor Kinloch also highlighted the wide performance and price gap between low cost lightweight materials and carbon composites. “What we need is a lightweight material that has a mechanical performance between Glass Fibre Reinforced Plastic and Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic, but at a price much nearer to that of the cheaper material. We can potentially achieve that by adding a very small dose of graphene to the GFRP,” he said. “We have to stop thinking of graphene as prohibitively expensive because even today, clever design can make it the low cost option.”
Versarien’s Dr. Andrew Deakin gave some fascinating examples, suggesting that dosing 10 percent of the CFRP used in aircraft production with just one percent graphene would more than pay for itself in fuel economy savings. The associated emissions reduction “would be free.” Deakin said that graphene manufacturing capacity has increased one thousand times in two years. His company is currently manufacturing up to 1 kg / day and expects it will be able to meet growing demand while continuing to reduce the cost of the material in several different forms.
As the seminar reached its conclusion, the challenge of industrialisation – what we need to do to make it happen – returned. “It’s like a game of snakes and ladders,” commented Professor of Materials Phil Withers of The University of Manchester’s new Henry Royce Institute, pointing to a giant illustration of the board game. “You climb the ladders of scale-up and manufacturability then you realise you don’t understand something and have to slide back to an earlier level of Technology Readiness. Doing things that get technology to market requires an interconnected research ecosystem rather than isolated islands of excellence. That’s why challenge funding, such as that managed by the APC, is making a critical difference.”
The University of Manchester’s Graphene CEO James Baker agreed, adding that encouraging design engineers to think outside their comfort zones means we have to address the problems that they worry about; “And those aren’t all about the cost of the material or validation of its properties,” he emphasised. “They include how to join it, how to repair it, how to recycle it, and a host of other areas that we must understand if the promise is to be delivered.”
2D or Not 2D?
Concluding, Ian Constance reflected that unlike traditional technology evolution, the move to graphene is a complex process that is about far more than materials development. “It’s similar to other areas of innovation that we support, helping to move great ideas from the laboratory to the vehicles we all drive. We need to continue to increase our understanding of the big picture, we need design and manufacturing engineers to take time to learn how the new approaches it enables could contribute to their objectives, and we need great innovators like those speaking today to continue to drive our understanding of this remarkable new material. I entered today’s seminar with big questions. I am leaving convinced we are at the beginning of the most exciting materials revolution for generations.”
“2D or Not 2D? Definitely 2D. The promise is already becoming a reality.”
Read the remarkable story of graphene here:
Potential automotive applications include: solar cells, windows, heated windows, displays, wireless communications, paint, batteries, supercapacitors, fuel cells, thermoelectrics, tyres, composites, fire retardancy, coatings, EMI shielding
The Next APC Seminar: Hydrogen – time to put our foot on the gas?
2D or Not 2D was part of the APC’s Future of Technology Series 2018. Join the next debate in the series, Hydrogen – time to put our foot on the gas? at the National Museum Cardiff on the 5th March 2018 and have your say. Click here to see the full agenda and register.
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About the APC
The Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) was established as a 10 year £1bn joint investment between government and industry. The platform, including the new APC8 winning projects supports 36 major R&D projects worth £589m, targeting a saving in excess of 34m tonnes of carbon dioxide and creating or safeguarding 20,500 jobs. In addition to its core competitions, APC supports industry consensus road-mapping, the acceleration of companies developing cutting-edge technology (especially small and medium enterprises), technology-focused academic communities (spokes) and the development of future supply chains.