Armoring arenas, cars, and buildings with supernatural materials

James Baker, CEO of [email protected]he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing as he noticed the installation of a new cylindrical disco floor at the Mayfield depot development in Manchester.

The concrete slab was holding together so fast and so strong that the builders began moving polishing machines over the driest part of the floor while their colleagues were still pouring the other end of the rink.

“Usually, you have to wait a week before you can do that,” he says. Installation, in October last year, took less than a day.

This concrete was special because it contained a small but transformative amount of graphene, microscopic flakes of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice.

Graphene is the strongest material ever discovered, but for nearly two decades it has struggled to find a revolutionary role in commercial products. Is this about to change?

Besides improving the mechanical properties of some materials, it is hoped that graphene can also make some projects more environmentally friendly.

“By adding as little as 0.1% graphene to your cement and aggregates, you can use fewer materials to get the same performance,” Becker explains. It is estimated that reducing the amount of concrete used in construction, for example, by 30%, could reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 2-3%.

Besides the cylindrical disco, Becker and colleagues have also been experimenting with graphene-impregnated concrete, otherwise known as concrete, on the floor of a gymnasium in Wiltshire and some road projects, including a section of the A1 several hundred meters long in Northumberland.

The team will also be pouring concrete on a yet-to-be-disclosed project in the UAE this year.

Baker explains that these early experiments involved fairly straightforward projects—floor slabs, rather than raised walls or platforms, which may be more dangerous. So far, concrete has performed as expected.

But why does graphene have this effect on concrete? Carbon fibers have previously been used to strengthen concrete and graphene (although its flakes are smaller in size than carbon fibres) plays a similar role, says Lisa Scullion of the University of Manchester’s Center for Graphene Engineering Innovation.

However, there is more than that. Graphene fragments may also change how the concrete settles around it.

“It provides approximately nucleation sites on the surface of graphene, to organize this structure within concrete,” Dr. Scullion says, adding that scientists are still studying the consequences of this. It can make the concrete more dense, or change the structure of the pores within the concrete.

Maybe something akin to a cheddar block, as opposed to Swiss cheese, as I suggest.

Dr. Scullion says that it is sufficient to remove the requirements for reinforcing steel bars within concrete in some applications.

Beyond concrete, graphene can improve the durability of paints and coatings as well, to ward off rust. “Because you have all these very small flakes, the water and corrosive ions can’t penetrate the metal as quickly,” says Dr. Scullion.

The University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Center

And by improving the strength of building materials, architects could one day design more elaborate and irregular facades, some of which may have been inspired by shapes in nature, notes Pascual Cavallier of the University of Salento.

Graphene has been a hot topic for years, since its discovery at the University of Manchester in 2004. The hype surrounding it has become the subject of studies, and there are some who remain skeptical that it will live up to such lofty expectations.

Krister Svensson, assistant professor of physics at Karlstad University, said in an interview published in 2019, that the hype around graphene has led to a “wild west” situation where some products containing the material may be expensive but actually low quality.

He told BBC News that the quality of the graphene used today varies widely. In addition, he wonders if using graphene as a reinforcing agent is really necessary, since graphite and carbon fibers can play a similar role.

“Graphene is still relatively young,” Becker admits. But he adds that he and his colleagues are determined to “accelerate the adoption of graphene.”

Companies that have tried the substance sometimes find it has slightly different uses than they initially intended.

“We love graphene,” says Debbie Milewski, Ford’s Sustainability Technical Fellow. It says that since 2018, the automaker has shipped between six and seven million vehicles, mostly in North America, that contain graphene in a handful of parts.

Initially, she and her team were interested in graphene due to its strength-enhancing abilities. But they found that it was actually more beneficial in terms of reducing noise and vibration, or improving heat resistance.

The Ford F-150 contains dozens of parts that contain graphene

The Ford F-150 contains dozens of parts that contain graphene

Cars, including F-150 and Explorer SUVs, now have 12 small components in and around the engine like pump covers or water pipe supports that feature graphene, in part because they absorb noise.

Depending on the sound frequency involved, these components can reduce audible noise inside the vehicle by between 12% and 25%, says Dr. Milewski.

It also made these parts lighter, reducing the car’s total mass by approximately one and a half pounds (680 g). This means that these vehicles use slightly less fuel and therefore have lower CO2 emissions over their lifetime.

Scientists are working on ways to make graphene disperse evenly in other materials

Scientists are working on ways to make graphene disperse evenly in other materials

Ford is working with US companies, XG Sciences and Eagle Industries, on various applications of graphene.

Dr. Milewski says the automaker is exploring the possibility of adding graphene to the plastics inside the car in order to make it stronger, but he explains that so far, they haven’t been able to disperse the graphene within the plastic as hoped.

This is often a major stumbling block when graphene is added to a particular material. In order to actually enhance its properties, graphene must be uniformly dispersed. But depending on how the material is formed or mixed, and the temperatures and pressures involved in this process, it can be difficult to achieve the desired result.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but imagine trying to get an even distribution of raisins in a fruitcake when the batter is too runny.
The goal of all these researchers and companies is to have a cheerful and interesting combination of materials that have been unmistakably improved by the addition of graphene.

Because with graphene, the proof is definitely in the candy.

Read the original article on BBC News.

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