Graphene is a material made from a single layer of carbon atoms, first discovered during experiments by Professors Kostya Novoselov and Andrew Geim, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. For many, it really is a wonder material – over 200 times stronger than steel, the material can conduct electricity even better than copper and is said to has the highest thermal conductivity known to man. One of graphene's most exciting properties is its remarkable thinness – at just one atom thick, graphene is one million times thinner than the diameter of a human hair. While innovative uses for the new material have been found in all kinds of industries, it is no wonder that its strength and lightweight qualities have led researchers to seek out ways in which it can improve the properties of fiber – particularly carbon fiber – reinforced plastics.

In 2013, the European Commission (EC) invested €1 billion as part of a new project entitled ‘Graphene Flagship’, which, over 10 years, aims to develop graphene-related technologies from use in academic laboratories to applications in a range of industries. The core consortium currently consists of 142 academic and industrial research groups in 23 countries.

One of the projects looking for EU funding was set up by the University of Sunderland in 2014, with the aim to develop lighter, stronger, more energy-efficient, and safe vehicles using graphene, to ‘potentially revolutionize the global automotive industry’, according to a press release.

Dimensional stability

The university, working with a consortium of five research partners from Italy, Spain and Germany, was selected as a partner for the iGCAuto proposal. The project focused on analyzing the properties of new graphene-based polymer material to determine how it behaves when used to improve the advanced composite materials used in the production of cars, particular with regard to strength, dimensional stability, and durability.

Professor Ahmed Elmarakbi, a professor of automotive engineering at the University of Sunderland's department of computing, engineering and technology, initiated the idea. ‘Graphene has tremendous applications for the automotive industry and using it to enhance the composite materials in cars has so much potential,’ he said. ‘The global automotive industry is currently facing great challenges, such as CO2 emissions and safety issues.

‘The project will investigate using graphene-based materials in the fabrication of nanocomposites with different polymer matrices. This material will provide benefits such as improved strength, dimensional stability and better thermal behavior, better flame behavior (active as flame retardant and for reducing the emission of smoke), and superior durability,’ Professor Elmarakbi added. ‘There will be challenges with this project; the issue is not only producing graphene-based products, the issue is applying them on a large-scale in cars.’

This article appeared in the July/Aug issue of Reinforced Plastics.

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