Will graphene be a miracle material for manufacturers?

To reduce our carbon footprint, manufacturers must look for new ideas and materials to achieve the lofty goals set by governments around the world to realise Net Zero. Tom Lane sat down with Dr Andrew Pollard, who is leading research into the applications of graphene, a material that could have a real impact.

Graphene has the potential to make a huge impact on reducing carbon emissions through its various applications. So, what is this material? Essentially, Graphene is a two-dimensional crystal of carbon, which has many extraordinary properties and characteristics which are either unique or surpass those of other materials.

What makes graphene really special, and gives it the potential to be a disruptive technology, is that it is strong, flexible, transparent and an excellent conductor of both heat and electricity.

The National Graphene Metrology Centre at NPL has been supporting the development of graphene through research into the associated characterisation and measurement science (metrology).


Graphene is an allotrope of carbon consisting of a single layer of atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice. Image courtesy of NPL
Graphene is an allotrope of carbon consisting of a single layer of atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice.

This is a key enabler to the successful and efficient commercialisation of this revolutionary material, and will enable the industrialisation of graphene production and its adoption.

Dr Andrew Pollard, Principal Research Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)  explains: “Graphene is a really exciting material, and we are seen as world leaders in the UK. We see some amazing work that goes on here, in academia, in companies and in industry. What we’ve been really focused on is the measurement of graphene and the standardisation of that measurement.”

Use in industry

After the research stage of any technology, the real test is its application within industry and how it can aid in solving a problem. Graphene is a versatile material and has multiple uses across many different sectors.

Andrew details some examples of how graphene is already making a difference: “A good example in terms of manufacturing is looking at noise cancellation of engines. Essentially, you have got this foam around the engine for the noise cancelling, by adding a powder that contains graphene into this foam has shown that it makes it more durable, stronger, and actually reduces the noise even further.

Dr Andrew Pollard Principal Research Scientist, NPL
Dr Andrew Pollard, Principal Research Scientist, NPL

“You’re getting around a 20% improvement in thermal properties and also in terms of essential durability, so it lasts longer, uses less material, and does a better job.”

The automotive sector is not the only example of where graphene is coming into its own. As smart phones become more powerful, mobile phone manufacturers have started to regard graphene as an important material, with multiple uses within the handset.

In recent years, many companies have applied graphene to different components of mobile phones, from batteries, headphones and even the chip inside the handset. “We’ve now got smartphones that use graphene but in very different ways,” says Andrew.

“On the mechanical side, we are seeing that it now works for the thermal management. We know that phones are getting more and more powerful and the processes are producing more heat.

“Most people have felt their phone get hot at some point, so thermal management is a really big issue there. Now you’re seeing some smartphones have a graphene in some kind of powder made into a film that it uses to spread the thermal management.”

Building for the future

One of the most exciting use cases of graphene is in the construction industry, where it is being applied to concrete. Adding low levels (0.001%) of graphene to concrete can reduce the amount required for construction by 20%, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of industry.

It has recently been used in a new construction in Manchester, where graphene-based concreate was applied to the flooring of a new building. Andrew explains why this can make a huge impact in reducing CO2 emissions. “Adding graphene to concrete is actually a really simple thing. Concrete as the most abundant manmade material in the world, because we produce so much of it.

“It is also a huge CO2 producer. About 8% of all CO2 produced is related to the concrete industry. They showed that by adding a very small percentage of graphene to concreate –  we are talking about a 100th of a percent or a 1,000th of a percent – the powder containing graphene in the concrete can improve the properties, particularly the mechanical properties, by say 20%.

“They are saying that they used 30%, less material and did not need the steel reinforcement. So, you can imagine that is quite a big change. If it makes it more durable, and you do not have to replace it as much or you use less of it, that will obviously then have a big impact on the CO2 production as well.”

The molecular structure of graphene: Image courtesy of NPL

Standardisation

There are different grades of graphene available on the market, but what industry is crying out for is standardisation. There are hundreds of companies who produce graphene all over the world and each of these companies have several different grades. What NPL and Andrew are trying to do is look at all of them.

It is not a cost-effective way to bring this to market at any type of scale if there are so many different variations of it. There needs to be a point where businesses can identify the particular grade of graphene that they need and apply it to the function that it is best suited to.

Andrew explains: “The only way we can do that is by standardising the way that we look at it, and the very first thing is terminology. So, there is a terminology standard out now – for example, it might be graphene, or graphene oxide, or reduced graphene oxide, or maybe it’s nano graphite –  using the right terms is really important.

“A very recent big step we have made is that we have the first graphene measurement standards. This means that now you can have a way to verify what material you have, and say it is measured to the standard. Then companies can trust it.

“They can then make a correct decision or two that improves the R&D process and product development, because you are taking that worry or that confusion out of the market – that’s been a really big problem. That one is not fully solved yet, but these standards are really helping.”

NPL is leading the development of these standards and working closely with industry partners to overcome these challenges and take the confusion out of the market. What is clear from speaking to Andrew and the team at NPL, is that graphene has huge potential to revolutionise many different industries through its versatility.

Applying graphene to:

Concrete – Adding low levels (0.001%) of graphene to concrete can reduce the amount required for construction by 20%, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of industry.

 Car tyres – Graphene can be added to car tyres to enhance their recyclability: Image courtesy of NPL

Car tyres – Graphene can be added to car tyres to enhance their recyclability. 1000’s of car tyres are burnt each day around the world, but by adding graphene and fresh polymer, these old tyres can be repurposed.

Transport – Composite materials with graphene are lightweight and strong, making them the ideal solution to low carbon mobility.

For more information www.npl.co.uk

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Images courtesy of NPL