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Graphene: The Most Incredible Material Ever?

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Rebekah Valero-Lee Aerospace and Defence

Every so often a process, technique or material comes along that provides an industry with an opportunity to change or adapt their methodologies. Within the world of materials in the engineering industry, one of those disruptive technologies is Graphene – a truly phenomenal material.

It was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004. While graphite consists of many layers of atoms stacked together, Graphene consists of just one hexagonal lattice of atoms.

This monolayer Graphene is fascinating owing to the particular properties it exhibits. It’s the strongest material known, has very low density, high thermal conductivity and tensile strength equivalent to that of a diamond – 200 times stronger than steel.

Top Facts About Graphene

Here are some more amazing facts; a single gram could be stretched to cover a football pitch; at room temperature it conducts electricity 250 times better than silicon; despite the fact that it’s just one atom thick, lay a piece of Graphene on a piece of paper and you would be able to see it.

These properties make it an incredibly exciting proposition for engineers looking at a wide range of applications – from structural to electronic. It could well be the most exciting material ever discovered.

One industry that is looking into the application of this amazing material is the aerospace sector. Its unique combination of strength properties and its lightweight nature is seen as ideal for an application in an industry where every gram of weight has to be accounted for.

In a similar way to carbon fibre reinforced polymers, existing materials can be infused with Graphene to enhance their properties and utilise its many strengths. The problem with thermoset plastics is that they delaminate and fracture. With Graphene enhancement there would be a 40-50% increase in impact resistance, as well as increased strength plus electrical and thermal conductivity.

AGEA

In 2016, the Accelerating Graphene Exploitation in Aerospace (AGEA) consortium (including UCLan, the National Graphene Institute, Haydale and Qinetiq), of which Morson Projects are a part, demonstrated and flew an unmanned aerial vehicle with a wing skin made from Graphene enhanced polymer composites. As this material and its research continue to develop, Morson Projects are involved, supporting the project with design engineering and project management. The long term aim is to deploy this new material into flying aircraft structures and parts in the future. The output of the AGEA programme will be prototype aircraft parts supported by materials testing, with a materials database developed to enable engineers to design components using the new  enhanced composite material.

With modern aircraft such as the Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner having both their fuselage and wings made of composites, the opportunity presents itself to utilise Graphene within these composites in order to reduce weight, improve performance and increase strength. Plus, the electrical conductivity of Graphene opens the doors for revolutionary new cockpit and instrumentation design.

The UK has long been a leader in the aerospace industry. In the next 10-15 years, we aim to become a world leader in the exploitation of Graphene technology in aerospace and open the door for further innovation.

In the Northern Powerhouse Partnership: First Report, it was highlighted that “the North has strengths in advanced manufacturing processes and advanced materials”, positioning it as one of the four prime capabilities of the region that can compete on both a national and international stage. With Graphene having its roots in Manchester, we would struggle to disagree.

There could be some exciting times on the horizon.

Visit Morson Projects or email Syd.Carson@morson-projects.co.uk for more information