In a hotel at the foot of the Acropolis, built during the 5th century B.C., the same era in which mathematicians and philosophers from Ancient Greece presented the atomic theory, more than 700 scientists and experts from 43 countries assembled to celebrate the Graphene Week. Under the motto “the future meets the past”, experts focused on the sheet of carbon atoms which, when joined to form hexagonal rings, known as graphene.
The meeting, held between the 25-29 of September in Athens, was organised by the European initiative Graphene Flagship to discuss latest research and applications of graphene, "the most amazing and versatile material known to mankind,” according to the event organisers.
The extraordinary mechanical and electrical properties of this material, together with the list of potential applications, have triggered intense interest among research teams across the globe. In Europe, the Graphene Flagship initiative coordinates the main groups on the continent and promotes collaborations with companies to accelerate the use of graphene in commercial products.
An example is Polygraph, a four-year EC funded project coming to an end in October 2017 and made up of 14 partners across Europe: seven SMEs, four large companies, two universities and one research centre. Together they have developed two demonstrators incorporating graphene that can help reduce the weight of some vehicle and aircraft components, resulting in better fuel economy and lower harmful emissions.
One of the devices is a panel for rear seat back in vehicles, where graphene is added to the composite resin with which these components are made, proving improvement to the thermal, mechanical and electrical properties.
The Italian firm Fiat has taken part in the production of this technology demonstrator through its Centro Ricerche Fiat SCpA, and the UK company NetComposites, which is also the coordinator of the Polygraph project, is responsible for characterising and manufacturing the composite material.
Radome, an enclosure that protects an antenna, manufactured with polymers, fibreglass, epoxy resins and graphene. / Polygraph
Development engineer, Maria Konstantakopoulou from NetComposites, highlighted the role of all the other PolyGraph partners in each of the steps required to reach the end product: “Robnor Resins (United Kingdom) supplies the epoxy resin, the Spanish company Avanzare and the Swiss company Imerys produce the graphites and graphenes, which are then mixed with the resins using advanced mixing and exfoliation techniques developed by the German SMEs YTRON and NETZSCH”.
For Gary Foster, project manager at NetComposites and Project Manager of PolyGraph, the project’s key targets have been met: “We have managed to develop process methods for exfoliating expanded graphite and generating graphene at an industrial level. And these processes have been used to produce a material with improved physical and electrical properties for composites, coatings and adhesives”.
The second demonstrator presented by the team during Graphene Week was also manufactured in this way: a radome or sonar housing, which is an enclosure to protect an antenna without interfering with radio waves. It is made with fibreglass-reinforced polymers and resins enriched with graphene.
The UK company BAE Systems, one of the leading manufacturers in the European aerospace sector, took part in the design and analysis of this prototype, proving that graphene technologies can now be applied to some components within this industry.
Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) also took part in the development of this component and published some of their findings in scientific magazines: In 2016 they presented a technique in the Journal of Nanomaterials to improve the electrical and thermal properties of polystyrene-graphene nanofibers via electrospinning and this year they offered solutions in the Composites Science and Technology journal, for filtration problems encountered when incorporating the innovative material into resins.
Another partner expected to publish their results is the Swedish research institute, RISE, which has estimated the costs of the life cycle and the environmental impacts - including waste management - associated with the production of the panel for car seats and the radome for aircrafts. They have also tested the effects of fire on these products.
The details were explained by the engineer, Francine Amon from this company during one of the Graphene Week sessions, in which Julio Gómez, the director of Avanzare, defined the advantages of graphene materials with large lateral dimensions "which, like reduced graphene oxides, offer very high electric conductivity and can compete with other materials, such as conductive lampblack”.
Less marketing and more genuine industry
The fine sheet of graphene can be seen behind the mesh grid of the transmission electron microscope / Avanzare
This entrepreneur from Avanzare has just been appointed chairman of the Alianza Española en Grafeno (Spanish Graphene Partnership), aimed at bringing producers and users together so they know exactly what is being sold to them. "Graphene-based materials need to be ‘labelled’, indicating how they have been produced and their properties; transparency is essential. Graphene does not need to be a marketing issue, but a genuine industry for technical applications," added Gómez.
The Polygraph results suggests this could be possible and apart from the two technology demonstrators, a number of PolyGraph partners are considering using graphene in their products, although, to date, none of the have manufactured a component or a specific device intended for the marketplace.
The PolyGraph project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 604143. A budget of 7.2 million euros was allocated to this project (5 million of which were provided by the European Commission), which also had the collaboration of the Padova University (Italy), the UK company HMG paints, specialising in coatings; the French company SAIREM with its microwave manufacturing technologies and The Institute of Occupational Medicine (United Kingdom), covering health and safety issues associated with the production of Graphene.
Polygraph is just one example of a whole host of projects supported by the European Union. In addition, the Graphene Flagship initiative, launched by the European Union in 2013 and with a total budget of around 1 billion euros, aimed at getting graphene out of research labs and into commercial applications to benefit society as a whole.
As Costas Galiotis from the Greek foundation, Hellas, explained as host of the Graphene Week, “the technological advances envisaged by the use of graphene and other 2D materials may have an equal, or even greater, impact on future technologies than the achievements in science, culture and technology of 5th century BC in Athens”.