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One Word for Today's Graduate: Graphene - Technologue

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 5/22/2015 Frank Markus

If Hollywood were to remake "The Graduate," what "one word" do you suppose Mr. McGuire would impart to young Ben at his graduation party, now that plastics are passé? I nominate "graphene." Have you heard of it? It's a two-dimensional crystal, isolated in 2004, that's an allotrope of carbon—like diamonds, soot, graphite, and spherical "buckyball" fullerenes—that looks like a microscopic chicken-wire mesh. Miraculous claims: It's among the most electrically and thermally conductive materials extant and it's 100 times as strong and 10 times as impact-resistant as steel by weight. A square yard of the material could support a 9-pound cat but would weigh only as much as a single whisker.

One Word for Today's Graduate: Graphene - Technologue

I stumbled across graphene at the Spania GTA stand in Geneva. This Spanish boutique manufacturer was showing off its ill-named Spano supercar, boasting three divergent applications of this new wonder material (the Spano is shown in this blog). The 12-volt starter battery featured lithium-polymer chemistry with graphene electrodes that allow it to accept a charge more rapidly and provide the same power as a lead-acid starter battery at one-eighth the size and a tenth the weight while lasting twice as long as and costing two-thirds less than a conventional lithium-ion battery. Inside, the leather was tanned using a graphene solution said to improve durability and flexibility while imparting antibacterial properties and replacing environmentally toxic chromium. And finally, the supercar's de rigueur 163-pound carbon-fiber/Kevlar monocoque chassis tub incorporates graphene powder in the resin, which is said to increase delamination resistance by 30 percent, fatigue resistance by 300 percent, and impact resistance by 15 percent. These features were all developed with Graphenano Nanotechnologies, based in Yecla, Spain.

Research

A square yard could support a 9-pound cat but would weigh only as much as a whisker.

GTA Spano© Provided by MotorTrend GTA Spano Europe is bullish on graphene, having launched a billion-Euro ($1.54 billion U.S. at the time), 10-year initiative in October 2013 that now includes more than 140 organizations from 23 countries. Applications of interest in addition to the above include fast electronic and optical devices, flexible electronics (e-paper and bendable tablet screens), photovoltaic solar panels, and possibly even artificial retinas.

Other automotive applications being investigated by this program include sensors for pollution detection and safety systems, smart adhesives, nanostructured thermoelectric materials for cooling and heat-energy recovery, and nanofluids for friction reduction.

2013-spania-gta-spano-front© Provided by MotorTrend 2013-spania-gta-spano-front Graphene's extraordinary properties stem from the naturally strong sigma bonds that link each carbon atom with its three nearest neighbors in a single plane. These provide intense strength in tension and flexibility in bending. The chemical structure also leaves an extra electron orbiting perpendicular to that plane, which facilitates the rapid, easy movement of electrons when an electric potential is applied—hence the low resistance/high conductivity. (It's even better than silver, the previous room-temperature champ.) This is why graphene consumes less electricity than silicon when used in semiconductor applications and why it's more efficient as a battery electrode. The fact that a sheet of graphene is almost transparent explains its value in photovoltaic solar-energy collectors. Its dense atomic structure won't allow even a tiny helium atom to pass through, which makes it a great barrier material, and when layered with acrylic glass six sheets thick, it demonstrates strong microwave-radiation protection.

But perhaps the greatest contribution graphene and related compounds such as graphene-oxide will make to cars is enabling affordable lightweight composites with atomic positions and bonds custom-tailored to provide the deformation characteristics that steel now provides. Best news: The European project prescribed a cost ceiling for lightweight alternative materials of $24 per kilogram saved, but initial studies suggest that these graphene materials could come in at a little or no cost penalty.

You have to admit, if our modern-day Alfa-driving Benjamin Braddock is a car guy, graphene could prove sexy enough to take his mind off Mrs. Robinson.

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