Atom-thick aircraft components

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Aircraft components could be built using a super-thin material just one atom thick, according to new research conducted at Manchester University.

A team of materials scientists and physicists has claimed that graphene has the potential to replace carbon fibres in the composites that are used to build aircraft. 

Graphene – discovered in 2004 by physicists at Manchester University – is a two-dimensional layer of carbon atoms that resembles chicken wire.

According to Ian Kinloch, a researcher in the university’s school of materials, graphene has excellent stiffness and the highest strength of any known material. With this in mind, he said, researchers at the university set out to examine how it could potentially improve the properties of high-performing materials, including composites.

The team put a single graphene sheet between two layers of polymer and used Raman spectroscopy to measure how the carbon bonds responded when the graphene was stretched.

Raman spectroscopy works by shining a laser light onto a molecule and then collecting and analysing the wavelength and intensity of the resulting scattered light.

The technique essentially measures bond vibration between atoms. As researchers stretch the bond, the vibration changes frequency.

Researchers were able to use Raman spectroscopy to look at the change of the vibrational energy of the bond and then work out the change in bond length. From this information they calculated the improvement in stiffness the graphene gave to the polymer composite.

Kinloch said the stiffness the graphene gave to the composite was better than any ever seen in their labs before.

Apart from stiffness, graphene is possibly better known as a potential silicon replacement. Yet Kinloch said its conductive potential is unlikely to be used any time soon.

‘If we look what happened to carbon nanotubes, carbon nanotubes made it into composites way before they ever made it into electronic devices,’ he said.