I have been with Arup since 2000 and currently...
New materials and their associated applications have shaped more comfortable and productive places to live and work throughout mankind’s evolution: from the discovery of the electrical conductive properties of copper to the use of fossil fuels in combustion engines.
Graphene is the latest in a long line of novel materials. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of this one-atom-thick allotrope of carbon. Hailed as the thinnest material possible, with the largest surface area, it is the strongest material ever measured and also the stiffest. It has the most stretchable crystals, as well as record thermal conductivity. It’s completely impenetrable, while having the lowest electrical resistivity yet found. And it’s completely transparent.
Given these properties, the hype surrounding its potential uses has been intensive. And in terms of how it could potentially change the way we design our buildings, I believe the hype is, in part, justified.
Its strength and transparency make graphene a practical alternative to brick walls – opening up our homes and places of work to maximum daylight, reducing lighting energy. And imagine being able to roll up your window, as we currently do our blinds, instead of switching on the air conditioning.
Graphene’s incredible thermal properties could make our buildings less energy intensive to heat. Coated onto glass or used as a conductive additive in paint, Graphene can transform any surface into a radiator.
Another attribute is its super elastic properties, which have energy storage applications. Smaller, more manageable, energy storage devices enable ‘smart buildings’ to manage electrical demand, as the renewable content of its incoming energy mix fluctuates.
With such exciting prospects – not to mention its game-changing potential in the world of electronics – it’s no wonder the serious players in academia and industry are investing millions of pounds and resources into graphene research and development. But is it all good news?
Present production techniques are energy intensive and the process is often very slow. As a result, the unit costs are too high to be viable today. Overcoming production cost barriers is being researched, but the timeframe for a workable solution remains uncertain.
There are also some health concerns with certain aspects of nano-partical geometry (the asbestos effect), but the industry is confident that this risk can be manufactured out.
Lastly, the uptake of graphene could suffer from being tarred with the same politically-charged brush as genetically modified crops – it being a man-modified material. Although this isn't necessarily a technical challenge, such an emotive issue could prove a genuine barrier.
As designers and caretakers of the built environment, we have a responsibility to fully explore the potential and pitfalls of these technologies. Graphene may not be an overnight game-changer in terms of how we build or behave in our buildings – my guess is that it will have entered the fabrics of our built environment by the end of the decade – but it's definitely one to watch.