Teams work on aircraft parts made from graphene

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Stronger, lighter aircraft wings could be built by adding graphene to the materials used to construct them.

In a new partnership between Manchester University and the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials (BIAM) announced this week, researchers will explore the use of graphene composites in aircraft.

Researchers at BIAM and Manchester University’s National Graphene Institute will exchange expertise and cooperate on projects to understand and test the structure of graphene reinforced aluminium matrix nanocomposites.

The projects could result in lighter, stronger and conductive parts for aeroplanes, high speed trains and other industrial equipment, replacing traditional materials.

Adding graphene to aluminium alloys could considerably increase their strength, while retaining their flexibility, according to Prof Robert Young at Manchester University, who is leading the collaboration.

Researchers at BIAM have been doing a considerable amount of work into incorporating graphene into aluminium in recent years, said Young. While they have already demonstrated that the graphene can improve the strength of the material by up to 25 per cent, they do not yet know how the mechanism works, said Young.

“So we are going to collaborate with them to try to understand the mechanisms for this particular process,” he said.

To complicate matters, adding graphene to molten aluminium typically results in the latter being dissolved. So rather than using conventional melting and casting techniques, the Chinese researchers have developed a ball-milling process in which the aluminium remains in a solid state, below its melting point, to prevent the material dissolving when the graphene is added.

The Manchester team will help develop this technique through their expertise in different forms of graphene, Young said.

“We are going to supply them with some of our very well characterised forms of graphene to help in this process.”

The researchers will also investigate the impact of adding graphene to aluminium on how the material corrodes, he said.

In the future, the two parties plan to expand the collaboration on graphene materials beyond reinforced aluminium matrix composites. The researchers also hope to collaborate on the development of graphene energy storage, environmental purification, and information materials.

Researchers at NGI are also aiming to improve the plastic that holds together the carbon fibre in aircraft wings. Adding graphene to the material should help stop water entering the wings, which can reduce their strength.

“One problem with polymers like epoxy resin is that they absorb water, and therefore their stiffness and strength drops,” said Young.

Graphene can act as a plate-like physical barrier, slowing down the diffusion of water into the material, he said.

Graphene could also be used to measure strain in the wings, to assess if any damage has occurred.

The researchers are also planning to explore the use of graphene to prevent ice building up on the wings, as a much lighter replacement for parts such as the copper wiring and copper heating coils currently used. Graphene is conductive, so adding it to the polymer could allow electricity to be passed through the material, heating it up and melting any ice that has built up, said Young.

“The graphene would therefore be acting as a multifunctional material, preventing water absorption and allowing electricity to be conducted to de-ice the wings.”

This could reduce the overall weight of the aircraft.

Finally, the researchers ultimately hope to try to replace the carbon fibre used to build aircraft wings with graphene. This will be a much longer-term project, however, and is expected to take at least 20 years.