23 November 2021
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If there is one word to describe graphene, it is “potential”. Since its discovery the possibilities for graphene have been clear, from utility in batteries and the automotive industry, to food and water technology and plastic and rubber alternatives. It seems graphene has the power to reshape the world we live in and help propel us towards a more sustainable society. We have previously discussed this in our article Graphene: Patently clear, but since then, technology in graphene has developed even further.

Lowering CO2 emissions

One of the simplest ways graphene contributes to more sustainable materials is as a lightweight but strong material. Graphene’s unique properties enable less material to be used while maintaining the strength required for aviation and building materials. Graphene-based products require less fuel to be transported and less material to be produced in the first place.

Graphene’s potential in this area has been realised with huge commerciality. Nationwide Engineering in collaboration with the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) in Manchester have developed Concretene, a concrete with a graphene additive which has improved strength, durability, and tensile capacity compared to normal concrete. Recently, a gym in Amesbury was constructed using Concretene, and more has since been poured to form a roller disco, using the same type of structure as high rise buildings.

Use of concrete accounts for 8-10% of global CO2 emissions but one of the most exciting prospects of Concretene is that it leads to a reduction of CO2 emission by around 30% and does not require steel reinforcements. The addition of graphene acts as a mechanical support, improving the strength of the cured product, and Concretene can cure 56 times faster than standard concrete. In the construction of the 54 x 14-metre slab for the roller disco floor alone, emissions of 4,265 kg of CO2 were prevented. Importantly, Concretene can be prepared in the same way as normal concrete – no specialised equipment or training is needed, enabling fast and easy roll-out of the technology. Clearly, this material has huge potential to lower emissions all over the world.

Graphene can also aid the agricultural industry. GelPonic, developed by AEH Innovative Hydrogel at the GEIC, is a graphene-based hydrogel which controls nutrient delivery to plant roots. This improves the yield of crops to minimise the energy required to grow food. Gelponic is also is recyclable and reusable and helps sequester carbon whilst using less water.

Reducing waste

As well as lowering emissions, graphene can also prevent waste. The last year and a half has seen a huge increase in disposable PPE use. This is having a downstream effect of polluting bodies of water with masks and disposable gloves. Masks made with graphene may help in this area. A mask produced by Haydale, which uses graphene ink, provides excellent protection and can be washed and reused without any loss of comfort or functionality.

Within the clothing industry, which is a huge producer of waste, Superdry are hoping their collaboration with materials group Versarien will produce graphene-containing garments that will not only have temperature control functionality, but will be longer lasting, and survive more wears and washes before fibre failure.

Sustainable production

Of course, the sustainability of graphene products will not amount to much if the process of graphene production itself is unsustainable. In our recent blog Green graphene – graphene from waste we discussed work towards turning sewage sludge and municipal solid waste into useful graphene. Similarly, ongoing research at Rice University in Texas has led to a technique to generate graphene from plastic waste using flash Joule heating. Finding ways to recycle and reuse plastic continues to be one of the most pressing issues in sustainability and graphene would be a welcome side-product. Flash Joule heating could also be applied to other types of carbon, for instance coal, enabling these resources to be used in new and less environmentally harmful ways.

Green graphene - what does the future look like?

Over the past 17 years, graphene technology has come a long way. The ideas currently being developed around graphene are numerous, diverse, and exciting. The combination of different graphene technologies means that in the future we could turn waste products into materials that help lower emissions whilst still providing useful, long-lasting products. In this way graphene could benefit sustainability at every stage of a material’s lifecycle. Graphene has so much to offer to help us become more sustainable and it is certainly living up to its reputation as the ‘wonder material’.

 

Green IP Report 2021

Our report examines the role of patents in making innovative ‘green’ technologies into a reality as well as how the patent landscape can be used to identify opportunities for partnering, collaboration and investment.

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Alison is a trainee patent attorney working in our chemistry team. Alison has an MChem from the University of St Andrews with an industrial placement year at GSK, Stevenage. Her DPhil is from the University of Oxford, focussing on developing new methods of synthesising asymmetric molecules with axial chirality.
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