Graphene as the Next Super Material

I first learnt about graphene at a meeting with several of our Cleantech East businesses. It was mentioned in passing as a potential solution that one business was exploring to reduce weight in an aircraft it was designing. This interested everyone in the room immediately and we got quickly distracted into what graphene is and what it can do! After this meeting it became a mild obsession of mine as I tried to figure what it is, where it comes from, what we can use it for etc.

The Properties of Graphene

There is a lot of rightful scepticism around graphene as it is often labelled as a wonder material. It’s even become a running joke in our office that all our problems can be solved with graphene. Which when you start to learn about the properties of this material is understandable!

Graphene is one of the strongest materials in the world, it is stronger than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel! On top of that it is also incredibly rigid, whilst being able to stretch to 125% of its original size. True graphene is very transparent, 98% of light passes through due to its single atomic layer. Because of this graphene is also incredibly lightweight, 1g of pure graphene would cover a football pitch. One of the weirder properties is graphene’s conductivity. It is both incredibly thermally conductive, and electronically conductive. It conducts heat better than copper or silver, and acts with the properties of a superconductor at room temperature.

Yes, this does all sound too good to be true. What we have to remember with all this is that these are the properties of pure graphene, with no impurities. In the real-world pure graphene is incredibly hard to come by and there are plenty of people who claim to have made it when they have in fact made graphite a precursor material of graphene.

But What is it?

Graphene is a two-dimensional material. It is one single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure. Its purity is often judged by both impurities within the atomic structure, as well as the number of layers. There are other versions of graphene that provide different structures and different benefits. Bilayer graphene, graphene superlattices and graphene nanoribbons are all alternative version and applications which provide different uses.

When we talk about graphene in general, we are referring to the single atomic layer that was first discovered by a group of scientists placing and removing Sellotape onto the graphite of a pencil repeatedly. This eventually built up a layer of carbon atoms on the Sellotape, effectively creating the first version of graphene!

The Graphene Working Group

The Graphene Working Group was set up to help bring together the possibilities of graphene together with the needs and goals of local businesses. By focusing on what the practical limits of graphene are the group aims to create a space where applications of graphene can be explored. Whether this becomes a larger scale funded project at some point is still open to debate. Areas the group has explored so far include: aerospace, prosthetics, construction, and composites. The group has also benefitted from a seminar from Cranfield’s Prof. Krzysztof Koziol who visited Hethel Engineering Centre at the end of 2019 to share his research and knowledge of graphene with the group.

What’s Next?

Next for the group is to look in more detail in specific areas of graphene application. This may mean the group will divide into several sub-committees to look into the use of graphene in aerospace, and in construction.

If you have any particular interest in an application of graphene do get in touch, we’re always open to new ideas!