Graphene is making an appearance in the news time and time again these days. Whether it’s breaking records, managing to synthesize it from soybean oil, or even a possible improvement that could replace it, graphene is mentioned and studied all over the place.
This time, however, it’s Sir Richard Branson who is showing a keen interest in graphene, a material that he has described as “breakthrough technology.”
A Virgin Atlantic chief executive has recently admitted that the Virgin airlines is expected to make a financial loss this year, due to higher fuel costs and the diminishing value of the pound. Branson is hoping to start having planes made of graphene in an attempt to mitigate how much fuel is needed for flying.
“Hopefully graphene can be the planes of the future, if you go 10 years down the line. They would be massively lighter than the current planes, which again would make a difference on fuel burn,” Branson was quoted saying.
GRAPHENE FOR FUTURE AVIATION
Branson had successfully managed to get Airbus and Boeing to start making their planes out of 50% carbon fibre. This managed to decrease their fuel consumption by 30%, due to the planes being significantly lighter.
Considering graphene weighs much less than carbon fibre, making planes entirely out of “the wonder material” would result in a massive drop in fuel consumption.
It is estimated that a sheet of graphene even as thin as a cling film could support around a ton of weight. Due to the sheer strength of graphene, less material would be needed to build planes if they were to make the swap to graphene instead of carbon fibre and aluminium.
GRAPHENE IS GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Branson himself hasn’t gone into specific detail on how much he estimates fuel consumption would decrease, however, as proven with the swap to 50% carbon fibre, it can be assumed that it would be a significant reduction.
Not only does this save the company money, but it also impacts the planet’s environment – less fuel consumption means less CO2 going into the atmosphere and thus greener airline travel.
BUT CAN PLANES BE MADE JUST USING GRAPHENE?
Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan is a lecturer in nanomaterials at the University of Manchester – and a graphene expert. According to him, Branson’s statements are unrealistic. He categorically establishes that a graphene aircraft is impossible.
“This is a flight of fancy, to say the least,” he argues. “A plane made solely from graphene is never going to happen. That is not the way the material works. Graphene is not a rigid material. It would be like trying to build an aircraft out of clingfilm.”
“When we say that graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, you have to understand what that means. We measure its strength on a very small scale – roughly the thickness of a human hair. On that microscopic scale, it is atomically perfect, without defects. But when you make the sheet larger and larger, you introduce impurities, and the strength drops away. It is not a straightforward argument to say that graphene is 200 times stronger than steel and make the leap to it therefore being a suitable material for planes,” he adds.
According to Dr. Vijayaraghavan, Graphene will have it’s uses but they will be smaller and much more specific.
Future Aviation will have many improvements but we should not expect too much too soon.