Whether it’s shape memory alloys or new graphene-based materials, the engineering sector is experiencing a new wave of possibilities thanks to material innovation. Jonathan Wilkins, director of industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, explains some of the materials changing sectors as diverse as road maintenance and aerospace.

Graphene is a relatively new material, first isolated from bulk graphite in 2004. The discovery led to the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize for Professor Andre Geim and Professor Konstantin Novoselov from the University of Manchester.

Developments in graphene-based technology have been rapid in a number of areas, including advanced electronics, water filtration and high-strength materials. Graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms that all lie in a single plane next to one another. Graphene is extremely flexible, and the way the carbon atoms bond together makes them extremely strong and very conductive of electricity and heat. 

Graphene’s chemical and physical properties are unique. It is one of the thinnest but strongest materials, conducts heat better than all other materials, conducts electricity, and is optically transparent but so dense that it is impermeable to gases. 

A successful collaboration between the US National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Graphene Flagship and the European Space Agency (ESA) — which involved carrying out experiments testing graphene for two different space related applications — has recently shown promising results.

The NRO is the US Government agency in charge of designing, building, launching and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites. Compared to copper, thermal straps composed of bonded graphene sheets have one tenth of the mass with up to twice the thermal conductivity. The challenge is producing it in large quantities.

Graphene’s exceptional thermal properties promise to improve the performance of loop heat pipes and thermal management systems used in aerospace and satellite applications. 

The main component of the loop heat pipe is a metallic wick, typically made of a porous metal. The wick transfers heat from hot objects into a coolant fluid. Cooling systems are used extensively in satellites and aerospace instruments. The Graphene Flagship plans to build a heat pipe coated with graphene that can go in a satellite.

The NRO Advanced Systems and Technology Directorate’s (AS&T) Advanced Materials Division is exploring the use of graphene-bonded sheets for use as thermal straps in spacecraft. These carbon-based thermal straps might supplant their metal counterparts and find applications in such critical components as cryocoolers, antennas, electronics and optical systems. 

Graphene roads

Highways England is looking to reduce road and pavement deterioration by investigating the use of graphene on road surfaces and markings. Graphene is the world’s first two-dimensional material, many times stronger than steel, more conductive than copper and one million times thinner than a human hair. 

Highways England has become the latest company to partner with the University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC). It is responsible for motorways and major A roads in the country, which carry four million journeys over 4,300 miles of road network every day. 

Adding graphene into maintenance and renewals operations has the potential to extend asset life, improving the experience of those using the roads, reducing road worker exposure and making journeys more reliable.

A new Trade Intelligence Report released by Stats and Reports entitled Global Graphene Electronics Market researches the major applications of the graphene electronics market, including batteries and ultracapacitors, displays, sensors, electro mechanical systems (EMS) and solar cells. The main competitors in the market include Graphene Frontiers, Graphene Laboratories, Graphene Square, Grafoid, Graphenea, Skeleton Technologies, Samsung Electronics, IBM Corporation and SanDisk. 

Nuclear decommissioning

In March 2019, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) carried out a technology review to compare the properties and potential graphene uses against the challenges facing the UK in decommissioning its earliest nuclear sites. 

The opportunities identified included advanced graphene-doped materials for nuclear waste. Composites incorporating graphene could be used in the construction of stronger buildings or containers for storing nuclear materials.

Graphene-based materials can absorb or filter radioactive elements, helping to clean up spills or existing radioactive wastes. Graphene in sensors can improve the detection of radiation or monitor for signs of corrosion in containers. Graphene can also produce smaller, longer-lasting batteries that would enable robots to operate for longer in contaminated facilities. 

The NDA review also identified other issues including cost, scale-up, environmental concerns, lack of standardisation and knowledge regarding radiation tolerance. The report was shared with technical experts across the NDA group, published online and summarised in the Nuclear Institute’s journal: Nuclear Futures. 

As the technology moves on from early-stage research, NDA and its businesses are continuing to monitor developments, such as GEIC, with the aim of supporting graphene-based technologies and accelerating their uptake within the nuclear decommissioning sector.

It's clear that advances in materials science are resulting in tangible benefits for the engineering sector. Through a combination of careful obsolescence management and a willingness to push the boundaries in end-use applications, engineering companies can continue to benefit from the next wave of material innovation. For more information on how to upgrade your facility to take advantage of these benefits, visit www.euautomation.com.

This story uses material from EU Automation, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier.