A major Chinese investment in graphene research plans to deliver lighter, better performing aircraft and high-speed trains.

Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials (BIAM) and the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at The University of Manchester will carry out a five-year collaborative research project.

Research will focus on composites with enhanced performance in the field of mechanical, electric conductive and thermal conductive behaviour, as well as the compatibility of graphene and the matrix materials. In aerospace this might lead to applications of graphene in different materials and components, with weight saving accompanied by better performance.

As well as aircraft, the research could have an impact on high-speed trains and industrial equipment to replace traditional materials.

The deal was announced on the opening morning of the European Science Open Forum in Manchester by Professor Robert Young, who leads the research project at The University of Manchester.

Speaking at a session called ’Science and Aviation’, organised in partnership with Manchester Airport and Hainan Airlines, Professor Young outlined how graphene could revolutionise the planes and trains of the future.

The announcement was delivered in parallel to a senior delegation from Manchester – including one of the Nobel-prize winning scientists who isolated graphene – being in Beijing to promote the city and as world-leading destination for inward investment and tourism.

Graphene has been included in the latest Chinese five-year plan and the country is starting to develop their domestic civil aerospace industry and expect to improve their expertise on materials.

The project, which will run until 2020, will involve joint research on graphene projects, strengthening of the ties in graphene technology and the exchange of personnel between Beijing and Manchester.

The partnership is an extension of a project started last year, which is looking at creating graphene composites with metals such as aluminium. The success of the partnership led to this much wider, extended project.

It is also expected that other UK companies, particularly in aerospace, may become directly involved as the projects progress.

Dr Shaojiu Yan, the principal investigator of graphene projects from BIAM, said: ”The relationship between BIAM and The University of Manchester warms up quickly.

“We had a very good communication on the first collaborative project. Now a long term partnership would benefit us to broaden the research area on graphene materials, to enhance the collaborative research, as well as to exchange experience and expertise on graphene.”

Professor Young said: “BIAM have a rapidly developing research programme on graphene composites and we are looking forward to pooling our expertise with them to facilitate the use of these materials in aerospace applications”.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, said: “It is firmly established that Manchester has many distinctive strengths which make the city – and help make the North of England as a whole – competitive on the international stage.

“This partnership with the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials will not only go a long way towards finding hugely significant commercial applications for graphene research, it will further strengthen ties between Manchester and China – ties which are ever more important as China emerges as a key player in the global economy. It is another vote of confidence in Manchester.”

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graphene membrane

For the first time, a graphene membrane has been designed that can withstand up to 100 bars of pressure.

Rohit Karnik, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Engineering, said the discovery could open graphene to a number of new applications, including desalination, where filtration membranes that can withstand high-pressure flows  can more efficiently remove salt from seawater.

“This is a fundamental study at this point, and what it shows is the possibility that one can design graphene membranes that can withstand high pressures,” Karnik said during an exclusive interview with R&D Magazine. . “This in itself doesn’t immediately lead to any application but it is basically a demonstration that you can design graphene membranes to withstand high pressures.”

According to Karnik, the research indicates which substrate designs are better to support graphene under higher pressures and that when graphene was placed over substrates with larger pores it failed to withstand even low pressure.

“Consistent with theory, the membranes were found to withstand higher pressures when placed on porous supports with smaller pore diameters but failure occurred over a surprisingly broad range of pressures, attributed to heterogeneous susceptibility to failure at wrinkles, defects and slack in the suspended graphene,” the study, which was published in Nano Letters, states.

For example, one micron pores will not allow graphene to withstand very high pressure, while when graphene was placed over pores 200 nanometers or less in diameter it was able to withstand 100 bars of pressure.

Currently, commercial membranes are used to desalinate water under applied pressures of about 50 to 80 bars, but if membranes are able to withstand pressure of 100 bars or greater it would enable more effective desalination of seawater by recovering more fresh water. High-pressure membranes would allow extremely salty water including leftover brine from desalination to be purified.

The researchers were able to set up experiments to push graphene to the height of its pressure tolerance after growing sheets of graphene using a technique called chemical vapor deposition—a process where the substrate is exposed to one or more volatile precursors that react and/or decompose on the substrate surface to produce the desired deposit.

Single layers of graphene were placed on thin sheets of porous polycarbonate with each sheet designed with pores of a size ranging from 30 nanometers to three microns in diameter.

The researchers placed the graphene-polycarbonate membranes in the middle of a chamber, into the top half of where they pumped argon gas, using a pressure regulator to control the gas pressure and flow rate. They also measured the gas flow rate in the bottom half of the chamber, where any increase in the bottom half’s flow rate indicates that parts of the graphene membrane failed to withstand the pressure.

Another result of the study is that the copper wrinkles present in graphene after it is synthesized couldn’t withstand much pressure. Parts of the graphene that lay along wrinkles failed to withstand pressure as low as 30 bars, while graphene without wrinkles remained intact at pressures up to 100 bars.

While Karnik said they did not necessarily push graphene to its pressure limits, the study did show that graphene can be used in a number of new ways that aren’t currently being explored to the fullest.

“We have been looking at nanoporous graphene and trying to understand how much transport happens to a nanoporous graphene,” Karnik said. “If it can withstand high pressure then in theory it opens up possibilities of operating graphene membranes at very high pressures where other membranes cannot easily operate.”

According to Karnik, one of the key aspects of graphene that make it a good option for a number of scientific applications is that it is a single layered material that is not subject to change in its structure, while polymers will change properties when exposed to different solvents or different pressures.

“The fact that graphene is a rigid lattice makes it immune to those changes,” Karnik said.