It is a material that, on its own, could transform everything from computing to car design, scientists claim. It could make for cheaper energy, improved DNA sequencing and water desalination. It could be used in contact lenses, bullet proofing and in the building of nano-bots. It conducts electricity and heat better than any known material. It is called graphene and it is super-light – small wonder when it comprises a single layer of carbon atoms and is one million times thinner than paper. It’s so thin, so barely there, in fact, that science considers it to be two dimensional. And yet it is also incredibly strong. Indeed, its unusual honeycomb structure makes it the strongest material in the world.
“It’s so strong it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap,” as Columbia University mechanical engineering professor James Hone has put it. Welcome to a new world in which lack of substance, lack of heft, means neither a lack of strength, rigidity nor utility. Welcome, in fact, to a new world of the lightweight, in which the likes of micro-lattice, a new composite mesh lighter than styrofoam, can sit atop a dandelion without crushing it.
Of course, the pursuit of weight reduction is not new to certain fields, notably those in which ease of movement is a factor. In sports equipment design, for example, the exploration of new materials has given rise to lighter track shoes, clothing, racing bikes and tennis racquets. But what was a specialist philosophy of design is now being applied much more broadly, in large part because today reduction of weight has far more important ramifications in a society in which sustainability is going to be of ever increasing importance.
THE LIGHT TOUCH
Very broadly, the lighter something is, the less energy is required to both make and to move it – hence improving overall performance – which is why automotive design and aeronautics places so much emphasis on cutting weight wherever possible. It is why, for example, the new Audi A4 is bigger than previous generations of the car, and yet, thanks to new approaches to fabrication, joining and materials, from the cabling to even the carpets, is 120kg lighter. Or why the latest generation passenger aircraft the likes of the Airbus A380 is made of carbon fibre, aluminium and progressive polymers rather than steel.
“There are just some incredible materials out there now that allow for a reduction in weight, which with an aircraft not only reduces fuel costs but increases range,” explains Jimmy Carroll of Winch Design. “And not just materials like graphene, but methods. You can mill down granite now to the point at which a sheet of it becomes flexible. It’s still granite, looks and feels like it, but obviously has massively reduced weight. What looks like a chunk of marble may in fact be 2mm thick and over a honeycomb shell.”
According to a 2014 study from the University of East Sarajevo, materials based on iron are stagnating in production and consumption generally, while the likes of magnesium, titanium, alloys, polymers and ceramic composites are increasing – albeit with industry all the while learning to compensate for these materials’ own disadvantages, the likes of lack of thermal resistance, recycling problems, low maximum operating temperatures or, in some instances, the cost.
But the lighter weight might also be said to chime with 21st century lifestyles: the peoples of first world countries are more mobile than ever, travelling further and more frequently – so lighter weight clothing, footwear, bags and equipment, bags all command a heavyweight price tag. Enter, for example, Vollebak, an experimental adventure brand, which has just created the first jacket made of graphene. That explains the US$700 price tag, but then it is the result of years of research, working with the material scientists who developed the multi-record-breaking Speedo ‘Fastskin’ swimsuit. It involved turning graphene in nano-platelets, stacks of graphene, which were then blended with polyurethane to create a membrane, which was then bonded to nylon. Its material properties means it works differently. It means, for example, that a nylon fabric can conduct heat for the first time, while the graphene layer can absorb it and emit it like a radiator. But it is also very, very light, and that’s in keeping with modern demands.
“We’re more nomadic now. For example, we prefer what you might call hybrid furniture that we can use around the house,” argues Giulio Cappellini of the Cappellini furniture makers. “For me lightness is very important in considering whether to put a new design into production and we’re more attentive to the new materials that might allow greater lightness to be achieved. But what’s also important is that people have a better understanding of the technology now used in making lightweight products – that light can still be strong. Lightness with strength is the way ahead.”