In addition, there are concerns about how the use of graphene powder could impact workers’ health. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is currently conducting exposure studies; in the meantime, they advise companies to use the same precautions they would with any potentially hazardous dust.

Ensuring the quality and consistency of the graphene supply is another problem. Even a small discovery or commercial development has the potential of exploding the world’s need for graphene, says Rodgers.

“There are a wealth of suppliers out there but not all of the people who claim to be selling graphene have a quality product,” says Dickie. “We need to generate confidence in graphene material. The adoption of graphene by several big industries is helping to build on that, and companies are starting to test the materials extensively with a view to producing graphene-based products in the near future.”

This quality assurance process will be made a little easier because some of the necessary equipment and procedures developed for carbon nanotubes could be used for graphene as well, Rodgers notes.

Moving Mainstream

Ford Motor Company has been a leader in the adoption of graphene-enhanced composite materials. In October 2018, it announced that it would include foam made with graphene in more than 10 under-hood components, including pump covers and fuel line covers, on the Ford F-150 and Mustang.

Debbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader in materials sustainability, says the company had little success when it introduced graphene into hard plastics in 2011. A few years later, however, summer interns tried incorporating graphene into urethane foam. Although the graphene dispersed well, the 1% to 5% graphene loads they first tried produced good, but not outstanding results for temperature and sound absorption.

To save money, the team began reducing the amount of graphene in the foam. “That’s where things got really interesting. Every time we cut back on the amount of graphene, the properties went up,” says Mielewski. At these lower amounts, the graphene was less likely to interact with other graphene. “You want it singularly dispersed and doing its job separately,” she adds.

Working with XG Sciences and Eagle Industries, the team eventually settled on a foam that included 0.2% by weight graphene. “We got a 25% improvement in high-temperature properties and an almost 30% improvement in noise absorption properties,” Mielewski says. “All of a sudden we were able to take advantage of this really interesting molecule, since 0.2% by weight was certainly affordable. Since it also nucleated the foam more uniformly, we were able to use less urethane. So we balanced the cost, and we got all these improvements.” She says the graphene helps absorb the sound much better, gives a quieter ride in the cabin and can withstand the heat – all important qualities under the hood.