01 March 2017

Graphene has a ticklist of desirable properties that firmly cement its reputation as a true 'material of the future'. It's just about the strongest, thinnest, lightest, conductive material ever discovered and it's set to revolutionise the world in which we live. But what does graphene mean for construction? We explore the potential applications.

What is graphene?

Graphene is a single layer of tightly packed carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. It's incredibly thin - at just one atom thick, it's the strongest compound ever discovered. It also lays claim to being the best conductor of heat at room temperature and is the best conductor of electricity ever known. It's also transparent and light. Oh, and did we mention it's reported to be around 100 times stronger than steel by weight? Little wonder then that the stuff has earnt something of a reputation as a 'wonder material' with the potential to revolutionise our daily lives.

What are the potential applications?

A little over a decade after the substance was sucessfully isolated, by scientists at the University of Manchester, graphene products are starting to become science-fact. The potential applications are many and varied though early research has reaped most rewards in the electronics industry.

Here we single out some of the areas where graphene technologies are set to have the biggest impact - from walls to lighting to touch panels, generators and batteries, sensors and solar panels...

1. Protective paints

The theory: Combine graphene with oxygen and you create graphene oxide. Add the substance to paints and you get an amazingly effective protective layer which could have a major impact on corrosion by providing protection from the air, weather or corrosive chemicals.

The applications: As well as helping to prevent corrosion there's potential to make paints that don't crack, are resistant to water and oil, are scratch-resistant or serve as thermal or electrical conductors. Potential applications for graphene-infused paints are almost limitless - from steel-framed buildings to the hulls of ships to the essential supports keeping our bridges and oil rigs intact to coating non-stick frying pans or kitchen countertops.

The reality: Spanish firm Graphenano launched a paint made from a graphene powder and limestone powder in 2014 and many other companies are exploring the potential including Akzo Nobel in tandem with Manchester University researchers.

2. Superb screens

The theory: Strong, flexible and able to conduct electricity - all properties that combine to make graphene an ideal substance for touchscreens and panels.

The applications:
It's no surprise to see mobile phone and wearable manufacturers like Samsung already exploring the potential of graphene-based touchscreens. Scale up the technology and you imagine a world where, as costs come down, entire windows could become interactive displays, our walls become 'televisions', and our fridges allow for internet ordering right from the door.

The reality:
Cost concerns currently make graphene too expensive to be used in mass-market touch-screens while competing with existing LCD or OLED screens on quality.

Graphene has earnt something of a reputation as a 'wonder material' with the potential to revolutionise our daily lives.

3. Spray-on-solar panels

The theory: Graphene is transparent and conductive making it an ideal material to use as a photovoltaic cell. Scientists believe that a solar cell (potentially even a cell sprayed on to a surpface) made from the substance could double the amount of energy converted in a traditional solar panel.

The applications: The potential to harvest solar power more efficiently and without the need for costly and cumbersome panels.

The reality: Researchers are exploring how the electrical current produced inside a cell can be collected as early trials have not been particularly effective in this regard.

4. Stronger self-cleaning concrete

The theory: Adding graphene to a concrete mix could increase the substance's strength and there's potential to improve the appearance and environmental performance. Not only would a graphene-infused concrete clean itself it would also create a wider catalytic environment, breaking down harmful molecules into harmless compounds, thereby improving the quality of the surrounding air.

The applications: Can be used anywhere concrete would traditionally be used, with particular benefit in environmentally challenging areas where there's the potential to improve the environment and reduce ongoing cleaning costs.

The reality: Graphene-strengthened concrete is likely some way off but researchers are already exploring the potential for self-cleaning or environmentally-improving concrete.

5. More efficient LED light bulbs

The theory: The heat from LED bulbs can be dissipated using graphene making them brighter. This means a lower wattage bulb will have the same effect as a higher wattage regular LED bulb, reducing the amount of energy needed to achieve the same levels of luminance. These new kinds of bulb are also said to have super-long lifespans reducing ongoing FM costs to supply and fit new bulbs. Manufacturing costs are also said to be reduced.

The applications: An alternative technology that can be used in any situation where bulbs are currently deployed - particularly in areas where easy access to replace failed devices might prove tricky or as part of a general scheme to reduce maintenance costs.

The reality: Expected to prove popular LED bulbs with graphene are expected to be commercially available via a University of Manchester spinout - Graphene Lighting PLC - in the near future.

6. Stronger, longer-lasting steel

The theory: Said to be 200 times stronger than steel, adding graphene coatings to steel seems like an ideal way to increase the strength of one of the most prevalent construction materials. A graphene coating will also significantly reduce the damage that can be caused to steel structures by water, chemicals and the elements.

The applications: Right across the construction industry, wherever steel components are used.

The reality: Extensive testing will be required before graphene can be used and applied to a structural material but the potential in this area is significant.

Where next for graphene?

The range of activity in so many areas that will impact on construction in the space of just over a decade is further proof of graphene's status as a 'wonder-material'. The next decade is likely to be instrumental in seeing some key applications realised commercially and being adopted by the mass market. We can't wait to see the results.


Image credit: AlexanderAIUS/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA