Engineers turn to graphene for almost every aspect of flight

Joseph Flaig

UCLAN researchers hope the Juno drone will prove the potential of graphene for widespread use in aerospace (Credit: UCLAN)
UCLAN researchers hope the Juno drone will prove the potential of graphene for widespread use in aerospace (Credit: UCLAN)

Almost 15 years after graphene’s discovery, the material’s properties are well known.

Its super strength and high conductivity in particular have inspired engineers and scientists to pursue applications in everything from satellites to tennis rackets.

Aerospace is a particularly promising sector, thanks to the material’s very low mass and flexibility compared to its Herculean strength. Engineers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in Preston are among those investigating graphene’s potential uses for flight.

Working in partnership with the Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute, Haydale Graphene Industries and others, the engineers have built and begun testing the 3.5m-wide Juno drone. Graphene is used throughout the aircraft for various applications. 

In such a cost-conscious sector it remains to be seen whether the material will ever find widespread commercial use – but, if it does, the Juno could point the way forwards. 

Lightning resistance

“Aircraft have metal meshes woven into the carbon fibre, which makes them conductive,” says Juno design lead Jake Jones. “If you just had carbon fibre alone without the metal mesh, lightning would blow a hole in it.”

Instead of an in-built metal mesh, the Juno has a ‘graphene skin’, with the two-dimensional material built into carbon fibre. In the event of a lightning strike, the conductive skin acts like a Faraday cage and allows the electricity to pass around without causing damage. 

A lighter load

Using graphene for its strength and conductivity saves weight across the aircraft, says Haydale. This aspect is attractive for aeroplane builders and airlines, which are on a constant mission to cut fuel requirements for cost and environmental reasons. 

Thawing off

The risk of dangerous ice build-up has inspired ingenious solutions since the dawn of human flight. Pneumatic ‘boots’ inflate on wings to crack and remove newly formed ice layers, engine air is redirected under leading edges – and, of course, planes are sprayed with unpleasant chemicals.

The UCLAN team has a simpler, cleaner solution – as Juno already has a conductive graphene skin, heat from the drone is quickly and evenly distributed across the entire craft to prevent ice formation. 

Fast-charging batteries

One of the most widely investigated graphene applications is the material’s potential for improving batteries thanks to its high surface area and conductivity. The Juno team is using graphene-enhanced batteries from the University of Manchester that offer extremely fast recharge times. In the future, this could keep drones in the air for longer.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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