The Graphene Revolution! Let's discover this extraordinary material together
We talked about it with Sir K. Novoselov, Nobel Prize winner, and M. Molina, CTO of LoB Space, Leonardo
(Copyright Graphene Flagship)
It is thin, light, flexible and transparent but at the same time strong, resistant, impermeable and with high thermal and electrical conductivity properties. These are just some of the characteristics of graphene, an amazing material with extraordinary properties that is now considered the starting point for new disruptive technologies in a wide range of fields ranging from electronics to composite materials and energy. Graphene was isolated in 2004 by Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, researchers at the University of Manchester. Geim and Novoselov’s groundbreaking experiments received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.
In 2013, the European Commission launched the Graphene Flagship, one of the largest ever European research programmes. The project aims to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society within 10 years, thus generating economic growth, new jobs and new opportunities. The programme has a budget of €1 billion and involves more than 150 academic and industrial partners, including Leonardo.
EXPERIMENTS ON GRAPHENE: A WORD WITH THE NOBEL PRIZE WINNER
The study of graphene dates back to 1859, but it is only since 2004 that accelerated research on this material took off. That year, researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester isolated a single layer of graphene from graphite, one of the most common forms of carbon. Graphene has a thickness of just one carbon atom, and features extraordinary properties related to quantum physics. The two researchers, winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their innovative experiments on graphene, obtained this material from a piece of graphite -the heart of every- separating its layers using an adhesive material, very similar to scotch tape.
We ask some questions to Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, guest of honour at the "Graphene: Revolution is coming to Earth... and Space” event organised on 17 October at The National Museum of Science and Technology “Leonardo Da Vinci” in Milan by the Graphene Flagship and Leonardo.
How did you become interested in graphene and how did you discover its extraordinary properties?
It was the style of work, called “the Friday night experiments” which was introduced in our lab by Andre Geim. According to it we would be encouraged to spend some time exploring risky projects. Graphene project was one of those. We never believed we would obtain graphene, but the goal was to get thin enough graphitic films to make a transistor. We were very surprised when we got down to one single layer. It then took years to uncover all the extraordinary properties of this material.
What future applications do you envision for graphene? And which would make you most proud?
Already now, graphene is being used very successfully in a number of applications, ranging from composite materials to printed electronics to energy. I hope we will invent such applications which were not possible at all before graphene, those where the whole combination of the unique properties of graphene will be used.
As a ground-breaking physicist and Nobel Prize Winner, what advice can you share with STEM students/graduates who are beginning their respective research activities and careers?
I think the best advice is not to listen to any advices. One needs to do what s/he really loves doing – that’s the only recipe for success.
LEONARDO AND GRAPHENE: INTERVIEW WITH MARCO MOLINA
Research on graphene is moving at a rapid pace at Leonardo. This material is used in all the divisions and technological areas where its application is possible, such as electronics, sensors and thermo-mechanics.
In the field of aerostructures, for example, graphene is used to study anti-icing systems for aircraft wings and to reinforce aeronautical structures against impact. In the field of airborne and space systems, on the other hand, graphene is considered a useful material both for cooling on-board electronics and for creating touch and flexible screens.
In the future, we will see better optical and radar sensors than those currently available, ultra-light and low-consumption electronic components and solar cells and batteries that will allow our all-electric aircraft to fly for even longer durations.
To find out what graphene represents for a company like Leonardo, we asked few questions to Marco Molina, CTO and Head of Capabilities, LoB Space, Airborne and Space System Division, Leonardo.
Two of the winning projects of the last edition of the Leonardo Innovation Award proposed the use of graphene. What kind of research is the company doing on this material?
Graphene research at Leonardo is a concrete example of "open innovation" where, thanks to a network of collaborations and agreements, we have access to the most advanced laboratories in Italy and Europe and thus to the most innovative discoveries. Working closely with our technical colleagues, engineers, chemists and physicists, who collaborate directly with the laboratories where the chemical synthesis of graphene takes place (in Italy, for example, the National Research Council and the Italian Institute of Technology), we develop prototypes to demonstrate the advantages of using graphene.
Some of these projects form part of the Graphene Flagship, the largest research programme funded by the European Commission, of which we are a proud partner. Through our involvement, in 2017 we were able to conduct experiments on graphene in microgravity together with the National Research Council of Italy (CNR), the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Graphene Centre at the University of Cambridge, something which had never been done before. We are developing a cooling system for satellites called the 'loop heat pipe', which is based on graphene and will soon fly into space: the dream is to have completely autonomous cooling systems for the future exploration and colonisation of space.
What benefits can Leonardo draw from future graphene applications?
In the CTO and Engineering community we expect great benefits from the performance of our products, which will be lighter, more compact and consume less energy. At first the innovation will be incremental: graphene will be added to our aerospace structures in very small quantities to make them more impact resistant, to allow us to better cool our airborne systems and to deliver sharper images we take from space. Therefore, we will have better products of the same weight or lighter with the same performance and we know well the value of every gram saved on board an aircraft, helicopter or satellite.
The second line of innovation will be more revolutionary and linked to the concept of multi-functionality: graphene ink can be used to print an electronic circuit on rigid or flexible structures, even on a sheet of paper or fabric, which could therefore be a sensor on one side and a touch screen that displays the image recognised by the sensor on the other. Aerospace structures will become intelligent, able to read their own temperature and assess their state of mechanical stress and even wear, giving a clear competitive advantage in preventive maintenance.
As happened in the case of carbon fibre, the first applications of graphene have been in the area of sport. Today the composite material (carbon fibre) contributes significantly to the quality and value of Leonardo's products, will graphene evolve in the same way?
Gaining certification for aerospace use is a long process, which explains why composite structures are first established the area of sport and then in the aerospace industry, and therefore also in Leonardo. The composite material gave Leonardo the competitive edge in building a wide range of products of which we are world leaders, from wings to fuselages and from instruments for satellites to excavation drills for other planets.
Similarly, we see graphene emerging in one of Leonardo's key areas: the aerospace sector. We are working closely with research centres so that the properties of this material (transparency, mechanical strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, flexibility) can be transferred to our products.