There’s also room for improvements. Last summer, Ford interns reduced the graphene load down to 0.05% and the parts performed even better.
Ford might someday use graphene urethane foams for engine covers and for headliners and door panels in vehicle cabins. “We’re also thinking about going back to hard plastics, but you have to be a little more creative because I think [graphene] is not going to be easy to distribute there,” Mielewski says.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Briggs Automotive Company has reduced the weight of its single-seat racer by more than 15% using graphene-enhanced prepreg for the body panels. The tooling for the parts, also made from graphene-enhanced prepreg, enabled the automaker to reduce the process time. “They could heat the tooling up quicker and cool it down quicker,” says Dickie.
Barkan suggests that Ford’s use of graphene may be a catalyst for its inclusion in more composite parts. “Many companies are somewhat conservative. They don’t want to be the first. They want to see that somebody else has proven the market,” he says. “So I think when we see a large-scale manufacturer using graphene in a way that takes them a step change up in competitiveness – when they get a 25% to 30% improvement for a class of materials – the rest of the competitive field has to decide how they’re going to act.”
Composite materials containing graphene are now being used in the manufacture of everything from golf balls, sports racquets and training shoes to fire retardance coatings and construction materials.
“One company, Haydale, has just come out with a prepreg material specifically designed to be used for lighting strike protection,” says Barkan. “That would eliminate having to use a copper mesh or a silver nanowire mesh to protect aircraft.” That same technology could be used for unmanned aerial vehicles and offshore wind turbine blades.
GEIC is working with industry customers on construction materials, incorporating graphene into concrete and asphalt mixes. Adding very small amounts of graphene powder to concrete mixes dramatically increases concrete’s compressive strength and reduces the amount that builders need by 30%. Since concrete production releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, the use of graphene provides an environmental benefit.
Putting graphene into polymers, foams and textiles can improve their fire retardancy. “Several industries looking at fire prevention in aerospace have had some very positive results in thermoplastics and textile materials,” says Scullion. This flame retardancy is usually just one of the many beneficial properties that graphene delivers for these applications.