Graphene imparts anti-biofouling and anti-corrosion properties to coatings, and that could have a global economic impact. “Biofouling on the hulls of commercial ships costs the shipping industry $36 billion a year in extra diesel fuel because it creates a drag in the water,” says Rodgers. “Corrosion on bridges, rebar, automobiles globally costs us about $2.4 trillion dollars.”
Because graphene is a very flexible material, it can be used as a sensor in composite products. Crash helmets and sports helmets could be designed so that they measure the impact of a ball or other object; if someone gets hit in the head it would be easier to tell if they had a concussion and needed further medical attention. Incorporated into vehicle parts, graphene could provide a variety of more sensitive and less power-consuming sensors.
“With graphene, composites manufacturers can take advanced composites, which are already amazing, and make them even better,” says Barkan. Composites with graphene may now be able to compete directly with metals because of the strength improvements the nanomaterial imparts. Adding graphene to thermoplastics raises the thermal deformation temperature, so they can now be used in applications in temperature ranges where they couldn’t be used before.
While graphene may not be a wonder material, its multiple properties should open up a wide range of new opportunities for the composites industry.
“As prices for graphene and graphene-related materials come down and the methods for making graphene at scale are refined, we should start to see more and more graphene composites in the market,” says Scullion. “The incredible properties that graphene materials can bring mean that there is a huge drive to make this happen.”