In the past, automotive companies have been early adopters of new materials, not only to maintain their competitive advantage but also to keep up with ever stricter emission controls. The incorporation of graphene is no exception, and we are seeing this 21st century material finding adoption in a variety of areas of the modern automobile: composite shells which are not only strong and stiff but can conduct heat away from high temperature regions (the engine bay for example), stronger tyres that last longer due to improved heat dissipation, and even highly efficient seat warmers for those sub-zero morning commutes to work. At FGV Cambridge Nanosystems, we have invested heavily in R&D facilities where our scientists are creating the next generation of graphene infused composites and rubber, producing highly efficient graphene based heaters and increasing the performance of li-ion batteries and supercapacitors.
Governments around the world are working to adapt to the effects of climate change and reduce global warming through investing in low-carbon energy sources, increasing fuel efficiency in transport and generally increasing energy efficiency wherever possible. Cars are responsible for 12% of the total EU CO2 emissions, and governments are trying to reduce this by instating ever stricter emission regulations.In 2013, new cars in the EU had to emit no more than 130g of CO2 per km. In 2020, this is going to be 95g of CO2 per km.
CO2 reductions are a fundamental driver for lightweight components in the automotive industry. This has resulted in a move away from traditional steel components, at first to high strength steel, then onto aluminium and ultimately carbon fibre reinforced composite parts. At FGV Cambridge Nanosystems, we support organisations in making automobiles lightweight, as well as imparting the unique properties of graphene to the structure. For example, the use of plastics and composites has made possible many unusual, lightweight parts that can’t be made from steel. However, there are certain disadvantages to using these materials. For example, plastic feels different to metals, and often customers associate the feeling of plastic with inferior quality. One of the properties of graphene is high thermal conductivity, similar to that of metals which allows them to feel cold. By adding graphene to plastics, the thermal conductivity of the plastics can be altered, feeling more like metal and maintaining the “premium” feel that users associate with metal parts.
Heated car seats have long been the realm of luxury vehicles, but with our new graphene heater sheets we’re asking why they aren’t a standard option in all cars. As well as providing comfort to the driver and passengers, heated seats are an effective way to reduce energy waste in cars: Instead of heating the whole interior, a heated seat can effectively keep the driver and passengers warm through local heating around the person. Traditional seat heaters rely on a coil of wire placed in the seats which heats up when a current is passed through it. These heater coils are susceptible to overheating and produce heat only where the coil is. Graphene based heaters developed at CNS can heat up using a fraction of energy of traditional heaters, and far quicker. In addition, the heater comes in the form of a sheet and provides far more even heating, making sure that there are no uncomfortable hot or cold spots on the seat.
When looking at the environmental impact of an automobile it is easy to only consider the CO2 emission reduction due to weight savings and deem the vehicle “green”. However, the whole lifecycle of the materials should be assessed to determine whether changes to a new material (in this case graphene) is making positive environmental changes. The graphene production at FGV Cambridge Nanosystems is unique, in that we produce graphene in a bottom up process, directly from methane, in an efficient, one step process. This cost effective process allows the highest quality graphene to be produced, and is repeatable so the quality remains the same, day in and day out. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and often flared from factories. We are therefore able to use this environmentally harmful greenhouse gas to produce a highly valuable material. Taking this one step further, biogas can also be used as the feedstock to our reactors, further offsetting our environmental footprint to produce these materials. Biogas can be produced from food waste, and when you consider that over 100 million tonnes of food waste is produced each year in the EU alone, the large scale at which we can efficiently produce graphene becomes apparent.
We are making some bold steps in the world of making cars more efficient and reducing CO2 emissions. Whether it be saving the planet through lighter vehicles, or simply making your morning commute more comfortable with a warmed seat, we are using our game changing materials to make a difference.
By Michael Schmid