Graphene is a type of carbon that forms in flat thin sheets. It is ultra-lightweight, flexible and 200 times stronger than steel. Researchers have been seeking ways to combine it with 3D printing technologies to produce flexible circuits and products with enormous strength-to-weight ratios.
Early methods simply embedded fragments of graphene, or its precursor, graphene oxide, into the ABS inks already used in 3D printers but a major objective is to construct molecularly continuous folded structures. In the course of such research, a team from the department of civil and environmental engineering at MIT have made a breakthrough into structures that promise revolutionary new fabrics, even without graphene.
Using heat and high pressure, they moulded graphene inks into a honeycomb structure resembling coral. A sample 5 per cent of the density of steel had 10 times its strength, but even that can be improved upon. The properties of the structure actually become more resilient when it is thinner.
The structure also endows materials with enhanced strength-to-weight ratios if they’re made with concrete, plastics or metals, although some version of 3DP technology will still be needed to manufacture them. Bridges, aircraft, spacecraft and fabric tensile structures are obvious applications for such materials.
Another team working on the combination of 3DP and graphene at the State University of New York and at Kansas State University have produced a graphene material that is 7.5 times lighter than air, nicknamed “frozen smoke”. If manufactured in bulk, it would not only enable tensile structures of unprecedented spans but is even said to be under investigation for possible application in an invisibility cloak. The research receives support from the Office of Naval Research and the US Department of Defense.
It’s not clear if the latter property would be welcomed by fabric architects, who have already won countless awards for buildings with striking designs (for example, see the portfolio of sites like http://fabricarchitecture.com/). The new 3D materials have numerous other exciting architectural applications, including in water collection and filtration systems.
Materials to span cosmic expanses
Looking even further outside the box, combined with the electrical and other properties of graphene, this almost weightless material would be ideal for manufacturing the kind of solar sails that are envisaged as potential engines for interstellar vehicles.