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Graphene: six applications for the industry

2 June 2015

Accompanying Tom Ravenscroft's article on the National Graphene Institute, CM presents six applications for the material in the construction sector.

“There is phenomenal potential for graphene to be used in construction,” says Andrea Ferrari, professor of nanotechnology and director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “Walls, lighting, touch panels, sensors, generators, batteries and solar panels could all be impacted.”

However, early research has focused on the electronics industry, where tiny amounts can be used to great effect.

Ferrari believes the next five to 10 years will determine which applications will make it into production. Construction Manager looks at six likely candidates.

Long-lasting LEDs

Set to go on sale this year, LEDs will be one of the first commercially available graphene products. Produced by Graphene Lighting, in which the University of Manchester owns a share, the lightbulb is claimed to have lower energy emissions and manufacturing costs, and a longer lifetime than traditional LED bulbs. The dimmable bulb’s diode is coated in graphene, so it conducts more effectively.

Colin Bailey, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, says: “Graphene products are becoming a reality a little more than a decade after it was first isolated – a short time in scientific terms.”

Impermeable paint

Graphene can be combined with oxygen to create graphene oxide for use in paints to give practically any material an ultra-strong and non-corrosive coating.

The material’s exceptional barrier properties allow a thin layer of graphene paint to make a surface impermeable, providing protection from air, weather elements or corrosive chemicals.

For the construction industry there are obvious applications to protect any material on the exterior of a building.

“Paints are certainly a very interesting area of research,” says Ferrari. “There are very real applications, such as coating bricks, that are being investigated.”

Corrosion-proof steel

The fact that it is 200 times stronger than steel is one of graphene’s most impressive characteristics, so it is no surprise that
companies want to take advantage of it.

Ferrari says: “There are massive amounts of research being carried out on steel, with Tata Steel very interested.” However, as a structural material, like concrete, it will have to undergo extensive testing before approval, so graphene’s other properties are likely to be exploited
before its strength.

Graphene-coated steels are being developed that could dramatically reduce damage caused by water and corrosive chemicals to increase their lifespan.

Interactive panels

Graphene’s strength, flexibility and electric conductivity have attracted several mobile phone manufacturers, including Samsung, to invest heavily to bring the first graphene-based touchscreen to market.

Touchscreens could be integrated into a building and, as production costs come down, it may be possible to upscale this transparent technology to cover entire windows. The National Graphene Institute’s architect investigated having an interactive panel on its street-side viewing window.

Spray-on solar panels

In the future we may see “solar cells sprayed on a surface”, says Ferrari. Photovoltaic cells made from layers of semiconducting material and graphene, which is transparent and highly conductive, have the potential to double the amount of energy converted in a panel. However, the material is not very good at collecting the electrical current produced inside a cell, so this is the area where research is currently being focused.

Graphene, made from abundant carbon, would replace the rare and expensive indium in photovoltaic cells, which could cut the price of panels. And spray-on panels could be feasible in the long term.

Self-cleaning concrete

Introducing graphene into concrete could have the potential to increase the material’s strength in the long term.

However, in the short term it is more likely that graphene will be used to improve the appearance and environmental performance of concrete. “Research is being carried out into concrete that is self-cleaning or could benefit the environment,” says Ferrari.

Graphene-injected concrete could make darkened and stained facades a thing of the past, as the nanomaterial’s
impermeable characteristics would prevent surfaces from collecting dirt.

Concrete that contains graphene would not only clean itself, but also have the benefit of cleaning the air around it, creating a catalytic environment that breaks down larger harmful molecules into harmless compounds to reduce pollution.

Read the article accompanying this piece: The National Graphene Institute: A super-material world

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