Aerospace: how does graphene meet the sector’s challenges?

Aerospace: how does graphene meet the sector’s challenges? Graphene 2 January 2024

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Faced with global warming, the aerospace industry is in the throes of a real environmental crisis, and must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 – a considerable challenge for the entire sector.

Thanks to its multiple properties, graphene ticks all the boxes when it comes to meeting the challenges facing the aeronautics sector: decarbonization through lighter structures, but also other performance features such as lightning protection thanks to its electrical conductivity, de-icing thanks to its thermal characteristics, and equipment protection thanks to its anti-corrosion properties.

Focus on the urgent need to decarbonize the aeronautics industry, and graphene applications for lighter, more efficient aircraft.

Decarbonizing aviation: a major challenge

Air travel offers a unique combination of speed and distance covered.

However, air transport is responsible for around 3% of global CO2 emissions and almost 6% of global warming.

Faced with the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, measures were taken at the end of 2022 by the 190 member states of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Les avions doivent atteindre la neutralité carbone d'ici 2050
Aeronautics must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

To achieve this, a number of avenues need to be explored:

  • The use of sustainable or alternative fuels: agrofuels, hydrogen, etc.
  • The development of electrically propelled aircraft
  • The use of new materials to lighten aircraft and reduce kerosene consumption.

With regard to the introduction of “green” aircraft, i.e. electric or powered by sustainable fuels, this solution is not yet fully exploitable. On the one hand, developments are still in progress, and on the other, the associated costs are still very high (the price of a tonne of SAF –Sustainable Aviation Fuel– is around five times higher than that of a tonne of kerosene).

As for electrically-powered aircraft, here too the subject is not yet topical, since development work is extremely time-consuming and, for the time being, the extra weight of aircraft batteries means that medium- and long-haul flights cannot be carried out on 100% electric power (source: Safran).

What remains, then, is the quicker and less costly solution of replacing traditional materials with advanced, higher-performance and lighter materials, such as graphene.

Graphene to help decarbonize the aerospace industry

In terms of lightness, graphene makes it possible to reduce the overall weight of aircraft, resulting in a considerable drop in fuel consumption. According to Elmar Bonnacursot (Aeronautics Champion of the Graphene Flagship), “each kilogram spared saves approximately two tons of fuel, avoiding six tons of CO2 emission, over the lifetime of an aircraft.” “

According to the Graphene Council, graphene leads to a 20-30% reduction in weight, without any compromise on other expected performances. In addition, graphene has been shown to make carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) lighter and stronger, while offering 60% greater impact resistance. This makes graphene the material with the best mass/mechanical properties ratio.

This potential has been demonstrated by Carbon Waters on polymers widely used in the aeronautics sector, through tests carried out both internally and with several partners and customers. These results enable Carbon Waters to offer products that improve the thermomechanical behavior of composites and meet the challenge of making materials lighter, through its Graph’Up Resist and Graph’Up Force ranges.

The advantages of graphene for the aerospace industry
Graphene offers many advantages for the aerospace industry

What are the other advantages of graphene for aerospace?

In addition to its lightness and mechanical reinforcement, graphene also offers other advantages, such as excellent thermal and electrical conductivity, which can be used for functionalized coatings such as conductive paints, or to improve the performance of heat-transfer fluids. Graphene’s multi-functionality makes it the ideal material for a wide range of aerospace applications.

Graphene as an anti-corrosion performance booster

Graphene is also an excellent anti-corrosion agent, extending the life of coatings. The Graph’Up Oxi range has been specially designed for this purpose. Thanks to their barrier properties, Graph’Up Oxi additives protect all parts of the aircraft from corrosion, including those of chemical origin (kerosene, de-icing agents, etc.).

Effective on their own, they maximize anti-corrosion performance when used in synergy with zinc-added formulations. In this way, coatings can be applied in thinner layers, making aircraft even lighter.

Graphene as an integrated de-icing solution

Using the Joule effect, graphene offers a thermoelectric solution for preventing or eliminating frost, without affecting aerodynamic properties. The Graphene Flagship‘s Spearhead Project (GICE) is just one example. Led by Airbus and Sonaca, this project, which is nearing completion, aims to bring graphene-enriched de-icing systems up to technological maturity level 6 (TRL6).

Such systems will make it possible to avoid the use of chemical de-icers such as glycol on the tarmac, which are responsible for prolonged ground immobilization of aircraft. In addition, replacing traditional de-icers with another de-icing method will avoid the release of chemical compounds into the air, likely to be inhaled by people in the surrounding areas (personnel, travellers, local residents, etc.).

Graphene as a lightning protector

Graphene makes aircraft even safer in the event of lightning strikes

Today, composites incorporating copper mesh are mainly used in aeronautics to protect aircraft from lightning strikes. An effective solution, but one with a few drawbacks. Firstly, these composites increase the overall weight of the aircraft. Secondly, they are complex and time-consuming to manufacture, as the process is difficult to automate.

A lightweight material, graphene also boasts excellent electrical conductivity, enabling it to redistribute the energy received at the point of impact. This makes it an attractive solution for lightning protection systems. By replacing copper mesh in composites with conductive resins, thanks in particular to graphene, aircraft are now equipped with a lightning protection solution that is simpler to implement.

Thanks to its many properties, graphene is helping the aerospace industry to achieve its carbon-neutral objective, while offering a host of other performance benefits. In addition to the applications detailed in this article, graphene also improves the fire resistance performance of materials, while offering excellent thermal conductivity and EMI shielding.

If you have any questions about the use of graphene in the aeronautics sector:

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