Graphene in Aviation
The FAA Must Prepare
Sir Richard Branson is an entrepreneur and visionary. He has applied those talents to his commercial aviation and space travel ventures. On a recent visit to Seattle announcing the addition of Virgin Atlantic flights to Seattle, he spoke about “graphene.” His unusual perspicacity resulted in a striking observation: the super-lightweight material will be “breakthrough technology” which should revolutionize the aerospace manufacturing of airliners and therefore reduce individual carriers’ cost of operating their aircraft.
It’s not surprising that Sir Richard was making news, but it may be surprising to some that he is introducing a new, important materials development in aviation.
As described by Graphenea, a technical journal, defines this substance as follows:
In simple terms, graphene, is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. In more complex terms, it is an allotrope of carbon in the structure of a plane of sp2 bonded atoms with a molecule bond length of 0.142 nanometres. Layers of graphene stacked on top of each other form graphite, with an interplanar spacing of 0.335 nanometres.
It is the thinnest compound known to man at one atom thick, the lightest material known (with 1 square meter coming in at around 0.77 milligrams), the strongest compound discovered (between 100-300 times stronger than steel and with a tensile stiffness of 150,000,000 psi), the best conductor of heat at room temperature (at (4.84±0.44) × 10^3 to (5.30±0.48) × 10^3 W·m−1·K−1) and also the best conductor of electricity known (studies have shown electron mobility at values of more than 15,000 cm2·V−1·s−1). Other notable properties of graphene are its unique levels of light absorption at πα ≈ 2.3% of white light, and its potential suitability for use in spin transport.
Graphene has been in existence for an indeterminate time, was predicted by scientists for a period, but no one was able to identify/isolate it UNTIL it was isolated and defined in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester. They received the Nobel Prize for their research.
The future of this carbon compound is limitless with applications of it being rapidly designed due to its unique strength, lightness and conductivity. The claim for the first use of graphene in aviation goes to the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire and several SMEs, including Haydale Composite Solutions. That team introduced Prospero, the first model aircraft to incorporate a graphene skinned wing.
Its utility as a structural element in a commercial airliner was sketched by designer Oscar Viñals. The result is a concept aircraft called the “Progress Eagle,” a plane that would utilize more economical and environmentally friendly technologies. In terms of materials, the plane would be comprised of carbon fiber, graphene, ceramic, aluminum, titanium, and shape-memory alloy materials.
This is the sort of technological development which the existing FAR 25 prescriptive approach would have difficulty defining standards and assessing airworthiness. The new Part 23 performance-based method, relying on ASTM as an expert, will be needed to cope with this innovation.
Graphene may generate a new aircraft design. The research needed to translate this exciting concept into practical application will require years. The FAA must prepare for this impending challenge.