Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a new form of ultra-light graphene that is 10 times as strong as steel, a new study in the journal Science Advances reports.
Graphene is an atomic-scale hexagonal lattice structure made of carbon. While it has always been one of the strongest known materials on Earth, it is only sturdy while in its 2D form. As soon as it gets put into a 3D structure, it becomes much weaker.
To overcome this, the team created the new material by using both heat and pressure to fuse graphene flakes together. This created a strong, stable structure that has a very large surface area in comparison to its volume. Then, instead of trying to change the actual properties of the graphene, the researchers just formed the substance into an unusual geometric pattern. This kept it strong in both 2D and 3D forms.
“[Two-dimensional materials] are not very useful for making 3-D materials that could be used in vehicles, buildings, or devices,” said study co-author Markus Buehler, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in a statement. “What we’ve done is to realize the wish of translating these 2-D materials into three-dimensional structures.”
Various simulations showed that changing graphene’s shape resulted in a material that was 10 times stronger than steel and five times less dense.
Though graphene is just one atom thick, the new shaping process also could be applied to large-scale structural materials. For example, it could be used on concrete to help create stronger bridges and has the potential to improve insulation and water filtration systems.
The study suggests that numerous materials — both heavy and lightweight — can be made stronger by taking on similar geometric features.
“You could either use the real graphene material or use the geometry we discovered with other materials, like polymers or metals,” added Buehler. “You can replace the material itself with anything. The geometry is the dominant factor. It’s something that has the potential to transfer to many things.”