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Electrified planes and quadruple-glazed windows

More and more modern airplanes, like the Airbus A380, are made of carbon fibre materials. Soon, graphene will further improve the use of carbon based materials in the transport industry, boosting performances of planes while reducing their weight and thus their fuel consumption.
More and more modern airplanes, like the Airbus A380, are made of carbon fibre materials. Soon, graphene will further improve the use of carbon based materials in the transport industry, boosting performances of planes while reducing their weight and thus their fuel consumption.

From quadruple-glazed windows to planes whose fuselage can be electrically heated, graphene is changing the world.

Making graphene can be as simple as peeling sellotape off a block of charcoal, however the one-atom thick carbon is giving engineers a radical new tool that is incredibly strong, highly conductive, and bendable.

That’s why the EU has set up the Graphene Flagship, one of the biggest ever research initiatives worth hundreds of millions of euros over the next ten years, when contributions from partners are also taken into account.

The Graphene Flagship will build on work already being done in Europe, such as the EU-funded CARHAY2011 project, which is using graphene to make ultra-strong materials, with huge potential in the automotive and aerospace industries.

Modern aircraft such as the Airbus A380 are increasingly made of carbon-fibre composites, which are lighter and stronger than aluminium. However, the problem is that carbon fibres are held together by a relatively weak epoxy resin.

‘Graphene looks set to become as important as steel or plastics in the long-term.’

Professor Jari Kinaret, Chalmers University, Sweden, head of the Graphene Flagship

‘The aim of our project is to make the resin stronger by adding carbon nanotubes or graphene, which are extremely strong,’ said Professor Sam Evans from the School of Engineering at Cardiff University, one of the partners in CARHAY2011.

Researchers plan to build several wing panels containing graphene, and then test them with realistic loads simulating extreme flying conditions. It could mean less material is required, saving valuable weight and fuel. 

If the new materials are successful, the project could result in big reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. For example, Evans says that reducing the weight of a typical passenger plane by 50 kg could save some EUR 4 million per year in fuel costs and reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 25 000 tonnes per year for a fleet of 1 000 aircraft.

All surface

The special properties of graphene come about because the surface of a material behaves differently from the rest of it. Because graphene sheets are effectively all surface, they have very different properties from solid graphite.

On a small scale, they are very strong and stiff and conduct heat and electricity very well, but it’s hard to make graphene in large pieces. It could be used instead to reinforce plastics, and even make them conductive. ‘It could be possible to get a useful increase in strength by mixing graphene into another material,’ Evans said.

The EU-funded SANAD project is combining graphene with carbon nanotubes to make a coating for planes that can be connected to the electrical system and heated up to stop the build-up of ice. The coating is also highly water-repellent, cutting down on fuel-wasting drag caused by water droplets.Altough it is just one atom thick, graphene is incredibly strong, highly conductive and bendable. © Conrad GesnerAlthough it is just one atom thick, graphene is incredibly strong, highly conductive and bendable. © Conrad Gesner

It is also perfect for use in windows as its thinness makes it effectively transparent.

The EU-funded MEM4WIN project is exploiting this to make a frameless, quadruple-glazed window with ultra-thin glass membranes. If it’s affordable to make, such a window could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Michael Muehlberger, of Austria-based Profactor, one of 14 partners in the EUR 6.8 million project, said expensive raw materials used in window manufacturing could be replaced by graphene.

‘Tangible results are not available at the moment, but I expect a weight reduction of up to 50 % and reduced costs of 20 % can be achieved,’ he said. 

The Graphene Flagship

The European Commission has chosen graphene as one of Europe´s first 10-year Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) flagships, worth hundreds of millions of euros when contributions from partners are taken into account.

The Graphene Flagship, headed by Professor Jari Kinaret, from Sweden´s Chalmers University, will bring together research projects on graphene.

The Flagship involves over 100 research groups from at least 15 EU Member States, with 136 principal investigators, including four Nobel laureates.

‘Graphene looks set to become as important as steel or plastics in the long-term,’ said Prof. Kinaret. 

Graphene has been subject to a scientific explosion since the groundbreaking experiments on the novel material less than 10 years ago

For details, visit the Graphene Flagship website

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