Graphene future

Research is underway into graphene’s potential for aerospace.
EstevezR/AirTeamImages

MANCHESTER IS a pioneering city in engineering and technology. At the heart of Britain’s Industrial Revolution 200 years ago, it was also where Ernest Rutherford split the atom and where the first programmable computer was built.

Continuing the innovative trend, in 2004 two University of Manchester researchers, Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, made a big breakthrough in materials research in their work with graphene.

Scientists knew this form of carbon, consisting of atoms just one layer thick arranged in a distinctive hexagonal lattice, was part of graphite, but nobody until Geim and Novoselov worked out how to isolate it. The pair were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010 for their achievement.

Since then, graphene has been hailed as a modern wonder: a material that is ultra-light yet stronger than steel, malleable and both electrically and thermally conductive. The material has been proposed for uses in multiple fields, from energy and electronics to chemicals and medicine.

Graphene is clearly ideally matched to aerospace, where weight savings to reduce cost and optimise performance are so important, so it unsurprising there is an aerospace involvement in research activities under way right now with the material in Manchester at the National Graphene Institute (NGI), opened in 2015 to lead research activities into the material, and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), opened last year, which leads the industrialisation of graphene and other 2D materials.

James Baker, the Chief Executive Officer of Graphene@Manchester, told AIR International the university is working with aerospace original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and companies in their supply chains to research potential uses of the material and accelerating its development for commercial use. Baker identified Airbus as an aerospace OEM involved with research activities in Manchester.

Separately, Airbus is involved in the Graphene Flagship, a European Commission project involving industrial and academic researchers in 23 countries. Late last year, the Flagship announced Airbus and its suppliers had produced a leading edge of an A350’s horizontal tailplane using graphene.

Aernnova produces the A350’s tailplane, which is composed mainly of carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) along with titanium alloys and aluminium. Aernnova supplied a CFRP resin to Grupo Antolin-Ingenieria, which added graphene to it, and it was found the graphene improved the mechanical and thermal properties of the milled CFRP, with the speed of fracturing decreasing after the graphene was added. The Flagship says the trial shows it will be possible to make the tailplane’s edge thinner, decreasing its weight and providing a fuel burn saving.

Using graphene in this way, as a coating for other materials to produce graphene-enhanced components, is set to be the way graphene will initially be adopted in aerospace. As a paper about the material published by the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) says: “There is huge opportunity for graphene-enhanced CFRP to contribute to weight reduction whilst maintaining strength, enabling improvements in fuel efficiency and reducing environmental impact.”

Baker told AIR International: “Graphene has broad applications from the lightweighting of materials, through to new sensors, energy storage and electronics, which will help the transition to more electric aircraft and the reduction in emissions. There are potential productivity gains possible by using graphene in tooling and manufacturing to reduce energy and material costs of production.”

A focus for the industry is accelerating the maturation of opportunities for graphene, which is leading to support for research to ensure studies are completed into the material’s practical use in structures, propulsion and systems.

Initiatives like the Graphene Flagship and the ongoing work of specialist centres such as the NGI and GEIC in Manchester will play a crucial role in this process.

Baker said: “With the opening of the GEIC, we are already seeing some acceleration of potential products and applications, including a graphene-enhanced carbon-fibre unmanned air vehicle which will fly later this year.”

This vehicle is a new version of a small UAV called Juno, first tested last year. Juno is only small, with a 3m (9ft) wingspan, but it is the first aircraft produced in the UK to feature a graphene skin surrounding a carbon fibre structure. Juno also has graphene batteries and 3D-printed parts.

The University of Manchester, the Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Haydale Graphene Industries, the University of Central Lancashire and other businesses are partners in the Juno programme.

Beyond research activities such as this, another important issue is ensuring there is a capability to manufacture graphene materials at volume, in suitable forms and at a competitive price to make it worthwhile for the industry to be interested.

In the UK, the ATI intends to invest in industrial demonstrators to help this process. Its report said: “It is critical the UK can accelerate the technology development cycle if it is to establish a competitive advantage in the emerging, disruptive graphene industry.

“Traditionally, the development of technology from first isolation to in-service use can take more than 30 years. There are many top-level focus areas for graphene’s use in aerospace which could halve the exploitation journey time.”

Mark Broadbent