How graphene, a nearly magic material, could revolutionize automobiles

Lamborghini Sesto Elemento
Lamborghini's Sesto Elemento uses carbon fiber to reduce its weight to just over 2,000 pounds, but graphene could offer even greater weight-saving advantages.
Carbon is the basis of life as we know it. It’s been there from the very beginning, churning and boiling in the nuclei of giant stars, before violently exploding and creating the building blocks of the world around us.

This element, one of the smallest and lightest on the periodic table, has the potential to revolutionize the automotive industry. It can do this in the form of graphene, a virtually two-dimensional layer of carbon that can be used in everything from battery and solar panel manufacturing to biotechnology and filtration.

The wonder material

Graphene is the strongest material ever measured. At least, that’s what Columbia University deemed in 2008.

Mechanical engineering professor James Hone said, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”

But the stuff isn’t just sturdy; it’s also a fantastic thermal conductor at room temperature, and it’s one of the most efficient electrical conductors known to man.

Graphene aerogel is also the lightest material in the world, seven times lighter than air. One square meter of it, a single atom thick and bonded in a hexagonal lattice, weighs just .77 milligrams.

Graphene

Graphene is an assortment of first-place finishes. It can be used to create touchscreens, water filtration systems, computer nanotubes, and tissue regeneration systems. It can even isolate hydrogen particles in the atmosphere.

And we haven’t even gotten to automotive applications yet.

The future

Imagine constructing a car from a material over 100 times stronger than steel that is multitudes lighter and can conduct electricity 30 times faster than silicon. Then, imagine that substance also being able to function as a giant solar panel. Getting the picture? Yeah, graphene could be a game-changer.

Back in 2011, the University of Technology Sydney made a significant breakthrough by synthesizing something called graphene paper (GP), an ultra thin layer of graphite that has five to six times lower density than steel, but is two times harder with 10 times the tensile strength and 13 times higher bending rigidity.

With graphene or a graphene-based material, all you’d need to beat a Ferrari off the line is a stiff breeze.

That flexible durability could be invaluable to auto manufacturers, who could use it as a coating for impermeable driver modules, armor plating for military vehicles, and even high-impact suspension components for off-roaders.

Think of the impact carbon fiber has had. The Lamborghini Sesto Elemento uses the polymer weave in the body, suspension, driveshaft, and chassis, reducing weight to a paltry 2,202 pounds. With graphene or a graphene-based material, all you’d need to beat a Ferrari off the line is a stiff breeze, not that big V10.

Not a performance fan? Look to Munich’s Visio.M EV, a 992-pound hatchback that needs just 20 horsepower to travel 100 miles. And what’s the Visio.M made out of? Carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CRFP) and aluminum, materials that look like lead compared to this ‘wonder material.’

Fast forward into the future and we could potentially be making entire cars out of this stuff, right down to the flexible, silicon-less solar panels that measure a record 15.6-percent efficiency.

More attainable, though, is the use of graphene in the development of super strong composite materials and compact, potent lithium-sulfur batteries.

MAPL-Xi-cathode
Photo via AIP Publishing

According to the American Institute of Physics, lithium-sulfur batteries are much denser than lithium-ion options, and posses the ability to store four times as much energy as their counterparts. Furthermore, sulfur is incredibly cheap.

The unfortunate side is that, while efficient, these batteries have a short life span because of how the sulfur dissolves into the liquid electrolytes.

That’s where graphene comes in. With the conductive substance acting as a physical barrier inside the battery, the transfer of energy is still permitted without the active sulfur degradation that occurs with close contact.

Graphene can, however, be used to improve lithium-ion batteries as well.

With these carbon shrouds, you’re left with an energy storage unit that’s lighter, smaller, cheaper, more dense, and has a higher tolerance for overcharging than lithium-ion.

Graphene can, however, be used to improve lithium-ion batteries as well, and you’ll never guess which automaker is making the biggest waves in that field.

Tesla is reportedly developing technology that will boost the range of its vehicles from around 300 miles to nearly 500 miles by using graphene-based battery electrodes. Remember, the medium conducts electricity like few substances can, which means higher capacity and faster charging altogether.

There are some problems, though.

Drawbacks

As this is written, there is no commercialized means of mass production for graphene. And because it is so new (it was discovered in 2003 and first produced in 2004), the technologies used to process it are still in their infancy. Thus, they are expensive.

More specifically, creating the super-material in true two-dimensional form is difficult to do in a large scale. 2D crystallites tend to bend into the third dimension when the material is grown via chemical synthesizes, so to create true 2D material, researchers are forced to use other methods.

Lamborghini Sesto Elemento
Lamborghini Sesto Elemento

Currently, the most common technique to synthesize high-quality graphene is known as exfoliation or cleavage, which peels away monolayers of 3D graphite with adhesive tape to get to a single atomic sheet. As you can probably guess, this method is extraordinarily inefficient for the amount of material netted.

But in an automotive world that is constantly looking to improve efficiency and performance, sometimes you have to think small.

Conclusion

Most experts agree that battery technology is what’s holding EVs back. With the current technology, there are concerns of expense, weight, size, and — most of all — range.

Graphene is a potential remedy for nearly all these issues, but it doesn’t stop there.

This ‘wonder material’ could replace select carbon fiber, steel, and aluminum components that exist in our cars today, lightening our loads overall in the pursuit of performance and efficiency. It’s a sports car formula that can help on and off the track.

Look at the 2015 Ford F-150, which saved 700 pounds by switching from a steel to an aluminum body. Imagine what developments graphene could bring in the next 20 years. Featherweight daily drivers that need next to no power to move, and are incredibly safe? Sign us up.

As far as 2014 goes, though, the global market for the material is a modest $20 million or so. But again, we’re starting small.

Will carbon, the building block of all life on Earth, be the next step of automotive evolution?

Wait and see.

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