The potential of graphene to revolutionise the airline industry

Aluminium allowed humans to travel in safety and en masse through the skies and around the world. Light and abundant, it laid the foundation for the types of aircraft that fill our skies each day.

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Aircraft designs then became more fuel-efficient and even safer when companies such as Airbus and Boeing embraced carbon fibre, influenced by the success of the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer. Today’s carbon fibre planes are lighter and greener – using 30 per cent less fuel – without compromising on safety.

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To further reduce the carbon footprint of air travel in the quest to combat climate change, we must continue to look for new and innovative possibilities for the next generation of aircraft. Which is why I’m incredibly excited about graphene.

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Known as the world’s first two-dimensional material – as it is just one-atom thick – graphene has the proven potential to be the next revolutionary step in building lighter, safer and more efficient planes.

How can graphene be used in planes?

It was first isolated in 2004 at The University of Manchester, by two scientists who went on to receive the Nobel Prize for their fascinating work. This week I have been speaking to the National Graphene Institute to find out more about the possibilities of graphene being the catalyst for an aerospace revolution. By incorporating the atomically-thin material into existing materials used to build planes, the safety and performance properties could be significantly improved while also reducing the environmental impact at the same time.

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Reducing weight, fuel burn and improving safety should all be at the top of the agenda for everyone in aviation. Just as aluminium and carbon fibre provided huge step-changes for the industry, graphene could be the material that drives the next wave of much-needed innovation.

The material provides so much fascinating potential to improve the world around us. It is super-light, immensely strong, transparent and flexible, and more conductive than copper. As it is only one atom thick it provides all these properties in just one material, and by adding it to existing materials we can start to see marked improvements in performance.

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The addition of graphene to the plastic, which holds together carbon fibre in the wings of a plane, can stop water getting in and adding weight, which increases fuel-burn. Similarly heavy copper wiring and heating coils, which are a requirement for de-icing planes, can be replaced with something much lighter and more efficient. 

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What’s more, recent news from The University of Manchester has revealed that graphene has potential for desalinating sea water to make it safe to drink. It’s beginning to look like this material could do many wonderful things to help us achieve the Global Goals, and put the planet on track for a better future.

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