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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Graphene breakthrough could clear ultra-light aircraft for take-off

Larger planes, aviation biofuels and even a levy on aircraft are just some of the measures being proposed to try to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry.

But now a breakthrough by a group of material scientists at the University of Manchester could deliver a technical fix to airlines' carbon footprints in the form of an ultra-lightweight material that may still prove tough enough to cope with the pressures placed on aircraft.

In a recent article published in the journal Advanced Materials, the team explained that material just one atom thick could be used to replace the carbon fibre currently used in aircraft design, creating new ultra-light and highly fuel-efficient planes.

The material in question, known as graphene, was first discovered in 2004 by physicists Prof Andre Geim and Dr Kostya Novoselov also at the University of Manchester.

The substance itself consists of a two-dimensional layer of carbon atoms, which has been described as resembling chicken wire.

The potential application of the material by aircraft designers was revealed when the team from Manchester, which includes one of the original discoverers of the material Dr Novoselov, used spectroscopy techniques to analyse how graphene could be used to strengthen two layers of a polymer.

"We have found the theories developed for large materials still hold even when a material is just one atom thick," said Professor Robert Young of the School of Materials. "We can now start to use the decades of research into traditional carbon fibre composites to design the next generation of graphene-based materials."

In addition to potentially replacing carbon fibre, graphene has been touted as a potential replacement for silicon given its excellent ability to conduct electrons. It is also regarded as one of the stiffest materials known, researchers claim.

"This relatively new material continues to amaze, and its incredible properties could be used to make structural, lightweight components for fuel-efficient vehicles and aircraft," said Dr Ian Kinloch, a researcher at the School of Materials.

But despite the potential of so-called nanotechnology, there are concerns about its widespread use. Earlier this month the EU Environment Committee revealed it is considering a ban on some forms of nanotechnology such as nanosilver and carbon nanotubes.

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