Elvis on F1: What is Graphene and why is F1 interested in it?

The scientific world has, for the last few years now, been getting very excited about the prospects of a relatively newly discovered material, graphene.

Only now is it becoming more widely known about as the potential uses and applications start to approach reality.
A brief trawl across the internet, which I recommend you do quickly now, will provide a wealth of information, as ever, some more accurate than others, some perhaps sensationalist or fantasy, but there’s no doubt that the potential to revolutionise many industries and our daily lives is tremendous.

Graphene was discovered at The University of Manchester, England in 2004 and, in basic terms, is a flat, 2 dimensional layer of carbon atoms (only a single atom thick), bonded together in a honeycomb formation. It’s actually these graphene sheets, or layers, which when stacked together, form the more commonly understood and widely used material graphite.

When separated into graphene sheets, scientists found that the new, molecular level material displayed an entirely new set of properties, properties which bucked the trend that most substances follow when they’re reduced in mass or density. After nearly ten years of research and development, governments and commercial entities are finding more and more ways in which this remarkable discovery can be applied to a range of industries and hundreds of patents are being applied for each week.

Interestingly the UK, where Graphene was discovered, has relatively few patents to date, the most, by far have been granted to Chinese industry.

Graphene boasts a set of superlatives no other known material can come close to. It’s the strongest, thinnest, lightest, most impermeable, most conductive of both heat and electricity and is flexible, transparent and non-flammable to boot.

According to a Columbian engineering professor studying the subject, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of cling film”, pretty impressive.

Graphene’s so thin, 300,000 times thinner than a human hair, it would take 3 million sheets, stacked on top of each other to reach just 1 millimetre in thickness.

It can comfortably stretch by 20% of it’s width and length and yet is relatively stiffer than a diamond

It can carry more electricity more efficiently, faster and with greater precision than any other material

Graphene now holds the record for thermal conductivity, it’s better than any other known material

It’s the most impermeable material ever discovered, even tiny helium atoms can’t pass through it

The amazing transparency of graphene makes it useful as a potential solar cell component or for touch screen computers

It takes a bit of getting your head around a material which is effectively only two dimensional, a single sheet of atoms you can actually pick up, but equally for those that are getting their heads around it, the possibilities are potentially ground breaking and seemingly endless.

Of course, while the prospect of a wafer thin touch screen computer I can fold up and put in my pocket is fascinating, naturally I want to look at ways the new ‘wonder material’ might impact Formula One.

The last revolutionary material to transform our sport, was of course carbon fibre and transform it, it certainly did.

When McLaren raced it’s MP4-1 in 1981, it was the first chassis to made from carbon fibre composites and was truly ground breaking in it’s strength to weight properties. Obviously in Formula One, good strength to weight translates directly into performance and safety gains and so is therefore invaluable and it wasn’t long before it became the ‘only’ way to make an F1 car.

One of the obvious potential uses of graphene could be to transform the way the parts of an F1 car are made. If graphene sheets can be laid up, or dispersed into other composite materials, the product could be made far stronger and lighter by using less of the more traditional composites, whilst taking strength from the ultra thin nano material. Imagine a carbon/graphene chassis at a fraction of the weight and thickness of the current model. Crash structures like the nose or side impact zones could be made much smaller, but with increased effectiveness, therefore perhaps even changing the overall shape and aerodynamics of the cars as we know them?

The heat conducting properties of graphene will undoubtedly be of enormous benefit in F1. Engine bays, exhaust outlets and brakes are all areas where teams are always trying to find new materials to use as heat shielding or for heat transference. Currently, heavy metals or composites coated in ceramic are used or gold foil sheets at great expense. With a single atom thick sheet of graphene, heat can be not only be incredibly effectively drawn away from hot spots, but transferred to other areas where it can be used for different applications… and all with almost zero weight penalty or space constraints.

Another area where heat build up has one of the biggest drawbacks is inside electronics. The crucial workings inside all computers are normally limited in their packaging by the ability to, not only manufacture smaller and smaller components, but the provision to allow enough space for airflow around those components to prevent overheating. Graphene can help on both counts and the possibility of placing sensors, receivers, processors and ECU’s etc, in areas never before thought possible, will be mouthwatering for teams and the likes of McLaren Electronic Systems who provide the onboard computing power for the entire grid as things stand. They can be smaller, lighter and do considerably more, much faster than the systems used today. Engine manufacturers too, would love to be able to make heat resistant electronics in the same way.

On board displays could be wafer thin, located inside a driver’s visor or wrapped around the flat edge of the chassis opening or the steering wheel, saving 99% of the weight and bulk of the current units.

Graphene is said to be the best electrical conductor known to man. In simple Formula One terms this means that electronic signals can be sent significantly faster around the car or even around an individual electronic component. ECU’s could process infinitely more data and do it much, much faster and this could give engineers and drivers more information, more accurate information and perhaps information they can’t currently get.

Today, when a car is reversed into it’s garage, there’s a delay as the enormous amounts of data from the run are downloaded onto the garage systems for engineers to begin analysing. With graphene garage cabling and system components, that data transfer could be almost instant and the knock on effect is a faster transfer of information to the relative factories and around the garage and therefore a much faster response time by engineers and mechanics to enable the car to get back on track.

Inside the garage itself, the current banner systems, or walling, with the teams’ sponsor logos could go, being replaced by floor to ceiling, wafer thin, transparent touchscreen displays. Sponsor logos, advertisements, basically anything they want, could be shown dynamically on the walls over the weekend. Drivers could bring up Skype or Twitter on a section of wall and respond to fan questions from the garage during the day, all in view of the public at the track and pitlane TV cameras. The possibilities are almost endless.

The weight of the currently heavy and bulky wiring harnesses and their connectors, running the length of an F1 car, could be slashed, or even dispensed with all together as the ‘wiring’ or ‘circuits’, could be integrated into the chassis itself or just laid flat in a sheet along the chassis sides.

One of the most interesting areas of development to potentially impact the sport and the automotive world as a whole, is the use of graphene to produce super-capacitors.

The KERS units on modern F1 cars generally use Lithium-ion batteries to store the energy recovered under braking. They work, but are heavy and cumbersome. In fact, batteries in general aren’t particularly good at storing energy, bizarre though that sounds. In relation to other energy storing materials like fossil fuels or petrol say, the amount of energy stored per kilogram is far, far less. They’re also not particularly quick to recharge. In the automotive world this has been one of the biggest drawbacks and downsides to the advancement of fully electric vehicles. Graphene will change this.

Whereas a capacitor, another device for storing energy, will charge and discharge much faster than a battery, it doesn’t hold anywhere near the amount of energy for it’s size. The answer, approaching quickly over the horizon, is the graphene based super-capacitor. Because of the material’s properties, it can not only hold enormous amounts of energy, but discharge it quickly and recharge just as fast. Mobile phone’s which will use this technology soon, will hold a charge for considerably longer than today and have the potential to fully recharge in around thirty seconds!

With the possibility of making super-capacitors small, light, powerful and efficient, it’s not too difficult to imagine a very different Formula One where the focus is heavily weighted towards green, energy efficiency on a whole other level to that coming in 2014. Look further down the line and, much as the purists won’t like it, the day’s of F1′s combustion engine formula as we know it will surely be numbered.

However this new material, and others like it change our lives, there’s no way Formula One’s escaping it. Those intrigued by the technical prospects, the ones who embrace change and progress in the sport have every right to be excited by what graphene will bring. It’s no understatement to say it will revolutionise this, and almost every other industry, so for the old fashioned, traditional camp, stuck in their ways and opposed to our sport moving with the times, it might be time to rethink the way a future Formula One might look?

As well as the ways that graphene might be used by the teams, it’s important to say that it will clearly affect many other areas of Formula One.

These are exciting times in the way we watch the sport at home. The electronics inside TV broadcasting equipment can be revolutionised too. FOM and television companies might look at low level airborne cameras for example or minute devices in new locations onboard the cars and the speed of data transfer across the world will be transformed. At home, we could watch on any number of futuristic devices, perhaps the size of an entire wall, or more than one wall, giving a panoramic experience of F1.
With similar technologies being applied to the aerospace industry, it’s easy to see how travel and freight costs and timescales might be reduced dramatically too, something else which would affect F1 and it’s ancillaries.

Some of these advancements are clearly further away than others, but there’s no doubting that graphene’s a very exciting discovery for the world. It’s currently expensive, but as with everything, before too long it’ll be mass produced and accessible to all. In Formula One terms it’s the kind of thing that designers have dreams about, although having spoken to the drawing office at a leading team on the subject, whilst they’re not yet looking at it in serious terms, it’s certainly on the radar and one day, someone will take the lead like McLaren did in 1981.

Marc Priestley– @f1elvis

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I’m just a chemical engineering student who loves watching F1. But discovering the article almost a decade later and being informed of all of the possibilities that comes with graphene use in F1, was probably the most exciting thing I’ve heard all week