Graphene has become quite the topic since it was first isolated in 2004, and the subsequent Nobel Prize in Physics that was awarded to two Manchester scientists in 2010, has the potential to positively impact aircraft performance, cost and fuel efficiency. The wonder material has been jointly explored by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and the National Graphene Institute (NGI) to help better understand potential market opportunities available to UK aerospace companies.
Working in close partnership with the NGI, the University of Central Lancashire, the Centre for Process Innovation, QinetiQ, Morson Projects Limited, and Haydale Limited with input from Ekosgen, we have brought together a sector perspective of where there are potential opportunities for organisations to benefit from investing in graphene. The findings and recommendations have been published in the form of an ATI INSIGHT paper which can be downloaded here.

Mark Summers, our Head of Technology for Manufacturing, Materials and Structures said:
“The UK has pioneered the research and development of graphene. The material has the potential to bring exciting applications and efficiencies into the sector. Although its exploitation into the aerospace sector is still in its infancy, it is anticipated that the scope of potential applications will continue to expand.

“We will seek to accelerate the maturation of graphene technology opportunities through the UK’s R&T programme, in a bid for the UK to remain ahead of the challenge and continue leading on the research and exploitation of the material in aerospace”.
Graphene has much potential to enhance the performance of aircraft. By incorporating the atomically-thin material into existing materials used to build planes, the safety and performance properties could be significantly improved, as well as reducing the environmental impact and improving fuel efficiency through light-weighting.

James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester, at The University of Manchester said:
“Major generational improvements in the aerospace sector have been associated with embracing new materials. Aluminium and carbon fibre have seen planes become faster, greener, cheaper and safer, now graphene and related two-dimensional materials can mark the next step-change.

“By incorporating graphene into existing materials used to manufacture planes performance properties could be improved across number of key areas. By collaborating with scientific expertise and embracing the opportunities offered by embracing graphene the sector can accelerate the next-generation of aerospace technologies.”

In an exclusive introduction to the INSIGHT paper, Sir Richard Branson said:
“The potential for graphene to solve enduring challenges within the aerospace sector presents real opportunities for the material to become disruptive, and a key enabler in future aircraft technology. We need to accelerate the opportunity for the UK to realise the benefits from graphene by creating a portfolio of graphene-related research and technology projects which if undertaken would lead to real impact in our aerospace industry.”

Will graphene have a major impact on aerospace?

As well as its vast potential and opportunities, the wonder material comes with some challenges. Despite the pioneering research and development, one of the key challenges identified is around taking the properties of graphene and translating them into a real component. There has been much work undertaken by the graphene community to overcome challenges faced by the material: the production of scale of graphene materials have increased year-on year. Early work on graphene applied to the aerospace sector has shown its potential to reduce weight while increasing the strength of materials, which could contribute towards reduced emissions, resulting in cleaner, greener and more efficient aircraft.

Next steps…

It is critical that the UK is able to accelerate the technology development cycle of graphene if we are to transfer its application into the aerospace sector. The ATI has identified four key activities that it will champion to ensure that the sector embodies the benefits of 2D materials for aircraft applications and manufacturing process support. This includes to:

  • Identify initial opportunities within the secure, exploit and position timeframes that could be incorporated into a forthcoming collaborative R&D programme
  • Ensure the sector is able to adopt 2D materials into high value design concepts for future architectures, through the development of product case studies within the ATI specialist advisory groups
  • Progress the benefits of 2D material usage in manufacturing processes realised by demonstration platforms within the research community
  • Lead the development of consortia programmes where direct action is required to realise 2D material solutions in emerging market spaces.

We will continue to share further insights and developments around the topic in due course.