Technology within the materials space is always on the move. Since graphene arrived on the scene, companies have raced to find scalable industry applications for a material with the potential to disrupt the construction industry and how we design our world.
From a simple experiment
In the next 10 years, there’s barely an aspect of our living environment likely to be untouched by graphene.
Born in a simple, classroom-style experiment using only a graphite pencil and a piece of sticky tape, professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov of the University of Manchester found that by drawing on the tape, they could split the adhered layer of graphite powder. They then halved it again and again to reduce it to a single atom of thickness.
The 2004 discovery might have been ground-breaking in itself—the means to extract a single layer of atoms from carbon was previously unknown—but the nano-layer also demonstrated structural integrity, as well as conductivity. That’s a perfect combination for design and construction.
What’s all the fuss about?
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms—the thinnest, lightest and strongest material known to man. It’s flexible, non-toxic, water-repellent and has antibacterial properties. Around 200 times stronger than steel, it also has the greatest surface area and electrical and thermal conductivity properties of any material.
The Graphene Valley of Australia
In partnership with industry professionals, the University of Adelaide recently launched a Graphene Research Hub focussed on research and development (R&D) for commercialising new graphene applications and industries.
Professor Dusan Losic, Director of the ARC Research Hub for Graphene Enabled Industry Transformation, says South Australia’s rich deposits of high quality graphite make it the perfect hub for graphene innovation.
“It has the potential for new disruptive technology that will change our lives and create new industries, the same as silicon did 60 years ago,” he says. “We have a vision of South Australia becoming the ‘Graphene Valley’ of Australia.”
Who’s making graphene work in Australia?
Imagine Intelligent Materials are developing smart graphene materials to fuse it together with electronics. Smart materials can create sensors across an entire surface area—a whole building, road or piece of machinery can be a sensor—not just a designated area within a structure or add-on device. Using graphene to create smart sensors reporting real-time stress, temperature and moisture changes may be the next big breakthrough in green buildings. Their pilot plant in Geelong has capacity to produce 10 tonnes of graphene annually.
Additionally, Perth-based mining company Talga Resources is focused on strengthening concrete with graphene, which has the potential to reduce concrete volumes by 20 per cent. Thinner concrete profiles have environmental benefits, but also offer new possibilities for design shapes and features. Talga are also using the material to develop corrosion inhibiting coatings, as an environmentally friendly alternative to chromium-based coatings (being phased out in Europe). Corrosion inhibitors are free of toxic chemicals and have applications to preserve structural and other forms of steelwork across domestic and commercial building environments.
Beyond that, researchers at the Graphene Research Hub are developing scalable graphene foams for sound absorption, which could lead to new approaches to acoustic engineering.
The future is waiting
Graphene doesn’t come without its challenges, however. Like any material or technology, in order to realise its potential, time is needed for R&D to deliver scalable commercial production of graphene products.
There may be a tendency for smaller companies to wait out the big end of town to spend the money developing new applications. But if the promise of graphene lives up to the hype, it’ll be worth the wait as more practical applications roll out and transform design and construction.
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