29 November 2020
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In the years since graphene was first created at the University of Manchester in 2004 by Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, it has been touted as a revolutionary material (see our blog Advanced materials: game-changing graphene) for a range of applications (see our blog Graphene: a whole new '2D world') from flexible and transparent electronics to high-strength composite materials. As methods for producing and employing graphene (see our blog Printing with graphene: exploring the inks set to unleash graphene's potential) mature and develop, the material is emerging from the laboratory and entering into real-world applications. Among many others, these include applications in the automotive industry, where graphene has moved from a pipe-dream for motorsports to a practical material for various elements of a vehicle.

Tyres

Starting from the ground up (so to speak) graphene composite tyres are already available for bicycles, and the jump to motor vehicles appears not far away. Graphene can be incorporated into the tyre material, offering lighter weight, improved durability, and reduced rolling resistance. Therefore, these can improve not only the driving efficiency of the vehicle, but, in lasting longer, also reduce the waste from discarded tyres (see our blog Sustainability: Graphene offers new opportunities). Furthermore, graphene can be used to introduce additional functionality into tyres, such as sensors for autonomous vehicles. Through their contact with the road, such sensors can offer a wealth of data about driving conditions, enabling safer and more efficient vehicle control.

Vehicle exteriors

Composite materials may also find application in body panels, where, much like carbon fibre, they can offer strong and light components. A prototype car with graphene composite panels has already been demonstrated. As with tyres, graphene introduced into body panels can also provide additional functionality such as embedded antennas for applications such as inter-vehicle communication, as well as heaters for deicing of panels and windows.

While it will likely never replace wall-charging for electric vehicles, solar panels for trickle charging of in-vehicle electronics could also be integrated, which could be used to maintain charge, or to operate vehicle ventilation (for example).

Graphene integration could even extend to aspects such as vehicle lighting, with improved efficiency LEDs being integrated into vehicle headlights or daytime running lights.

Under the bonnet

Moving under the bonnet, a key area that graphene may be applied in vehicles is in the energy storage (see our blog Battery electrolytes: the latest graphene composites) and motors for electric vehicles. Such batteries may offer faster charging and increased capacity, each important factors in supporting the adoption of electric vehicles. Meanwhile, use of graphene to replace metal windings can offer a lighter and more efficient motor.

Even in vehicles with combustion engines, there is potential for graphene to be used as sensors, such as gas sensors that can be used to monitor air inlets and/or exhaust for improved engine operation, as well as in thermoelectric elements that can recover waste heat from the motor.    

In the cabin

The emergence of COVID-19 has once again highlighted the virus transmission risks associated with air movement in enclosed spaces. This could be reduced by filtering cabin air to remove or destroy pathogens. Similarly to graphene applications in masks (see our blog Graphene masks: facing up to coronavirus (COVID-19)), graphene-based air filters are emerging that could fulfil this role, enhancing vehicle occupant safety (particularly in public transport such as taxis and buses, where the risks of exposure are higher).

In moving towards electric vehicles, a challenge that arises is heating the vehicle cabin. Unlike with a combustion engine, there is no longer a ready source of waste heat that can be used to warm the air. Efficiently heating the cabin in a way that does not overly reduce vehicle range is therefore an important consideration. Graphene heaters such as those developed by Cambridge Nanosystems may offer a solution. Such heaters could be integrated into seat fabrics and cabin panels, providing uniform heating throughout the vehicle.

Finally, with in-car entertainment and the wider adoption of digital dashboards, graphene may also find application in vehicle displays and touch panels, where it can act as a transparent conducting electrode. As well as reducing the overall weight of the display (by enabling a glass front-plane to be replaced with plastic, for example), the flexibility of graphene can enable it to be used in different architectures such as curved or wrap-around displays. Graphene can also be integrated into vehicle speakers, where it can enhance the audio by lightening the speaker drivers without sacrificing strength, as well as into the cables used to interconnect various vehicle components for overall improved operating efficiency.

Conclusions

While there may still be a way to go with graphene entering the main-stream, it is clear that the myriad opportunities for graphene in the automotive sphere will make this a key market for the material going forwards.

Richard is a part-qualified patent attorney and member of the Engineering and ICT practice group. He has three years of experience in drafting and prosecuting patent applications in a wide variety of technical fields, working with both multinational corporations, and UK and internationally based SMEs. Richard has an MSci in Physics from the University of Bristol, and a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Cambridge. His PhD research focused on solution processing of graphene and related 2D materials to produce functional inks and composite materials for electronics and photonics. Prior to joining Mewburn Ellis, Richard was a co-founder and director of a spin-out seeking to further develop and commercialise the graphene technology he developed during his PhD research.
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