It has been hailed as a wonder material – possibly the UK’s greatest contribution to global science and technology so far this century, it is called graphene and according to Richard Branson, it may be set to transform the airplane business.
It was isolated in Manchester in 2004, it won the researchers, behind the breakthrough, Prof Andre Geim and Prof Kostya Novoselov, the Nobel Prize. It is 50 times stronger than steel, one atom thick, it is better at conducting heat than any other material we know of, and is a superb conductor of electricity and it is transparent.
Graphene could give Moore’s Law a new lease of life, if it replaces silicon as the staple material of chips, it could be used to transform energy storage, solar power, and water desalination. Because of its huge surface area to volume – one gramme of graphene has the same surface area as a tennis court – it may transform supercapacitors, revolutionising electric cars.
But it’s the strength weight ratio that has drawn the attention of Richard Branson.
Graphene is used to make super strong condoms, and forms part of Novak Djokovic’s tennis racket.
But its planes that makes its interesting to Richard Branson.
To explain, the lighter a plane the less fuel it needs. Notwithstanding President Trump’s apparent policy that if we ignore climate change it will go away, the use of fuel by aircraft is a major contributor to global warming.
The introduction of carbon fibre to the latest aircrafts (such as the Boing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus 380) – something Sir Richard encouraged, has helped reduce weight and thus fuel usage.
But Sir Richard reckons graphene could have a far more revolutionary effect.
He said: “"Graphene is even lighter [than carbon fibre], many times lighter and many times stronger.
"Hopefully graphene can be the planes of the future, 10 years down the line. They would be massively lighter than the current planes, which again would make a difference on fuel burn."
But graphene is not yet proven technology, in theory it can change the world, but 12 years or so on from its isolation, it is has mainly served the function of enabling Djokovic to score more points against Andy Murray.
As Sir Richard also said: “The question is: are they going to be able to scale it [graphene] up enough to really make a difference?"