Car manufacturers are always looking for the next design breakthrough, and it’s potentially been found in graphene. According to the University of Sunderland, composite car components that use graphene are expected to make lighter, more energy-efficient motors. The university is leading a consortium around the material in the form of a pilot plant in Japan.
Scientists have been experimenting with graphene and have discovered that when added to carbon-reinforced plastic in a certain way, an object is capable of absorbing 40% more energy than usual. This may lead to the development of safer cars.
The University of Sunderland isn’t the first institution to recognise the potential of graphene. The Advanced Propulsion Centre in Warwick held a seminar that brought together experts to discuss the benefits of graphene, which was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004.
The University of Sunderland claims to be the first to physically test the material, as opposed to theoretically tabling it. Representatives have also said they’ve started the process of patenting applications.
Graphene is created through breaking down graphite. When turned into powder, small amounts can be blended with the resin used in the liquid form of carbonfibre. Ahmed Elmarakbi, professor of automotive composites at the University of Sunderland, spoke about the process. “The combination of materials creates a kind of toughness that absorbs some loads, so it’s somewhere between carbonfibre and metal. Whatever we’re using now, we can use much less of it. When there are many layers of laminate, we can get better performance using graphene. If we want the same performance, we can use few layers.”
A bumper design was created at the university using two components. The exterior was made from a carbonfibre-reinforced resin and graphene mix. Strengthening ribs were created from glassfibre and graphene.
Producing graphene comes with a set of challenges. It’s important to mix graphene powder evenly, otherwise clumps can weaken a finished product. Using too much of the material can make an object too strong, transmitting energy rather than absorbing it.
Elmarakbi is confident in the benefits of graphene. “It can replace many different parts of the vehicle. Structural components, doors, chassis – any part of the structure made of steel or aluminium could be replaced.”
It’s expected the graphene components would make it to market in seven to eight years. The future could be extremely promising for cars if graphene is used more.