An aerospace engineering team from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has unveiled Juno, the first ever aircraft covered with a graphene skin.

The enormous significance of this development is locked up in the near-miraculous properties of graphene and the previously unsolved problems of harnessing them – based in turn on the difficulty of producing sufficient quantities of it.

What is graphene?

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Graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms linked in a hexagonal (honeycomb-like) arrangement. It’s so strong that just one atom-thick sheet of it – previously impossible to produce in a big enough format – can support the weight of an elephant, making it hundreds of times stronger than steel.

It’s also highly conductive of electricity, which is another story altogether, but one that ties very neatly into Juno’s odyssey.

Finally, it is also super-flexible. If you could produce a sheet of graphene and wave it around, it would be lighter than a feather and billow like any light material in the wind. 

What’s it good for?

Together, these three characteristics make graphene suitable for any number of applications. Many have been strongly hyped as done-and-dusted consumer breakthroughs, but as noted above, there are no commercially viable processes to produce large quantities of it.

Therefore, many products on the market just feature tiny bits of graphene mixed into other materials to enhance their properties, says Joseph Meany, co-author of Graphene: The Superstrong, Superthin, and Superversatile Material That Will Revolutionize the World. Products range from eyewear, Olympic bikes, batteries and lubricants to vibration-detecting putty.

Breakthrough

But thanks to the work of the UCLAN team, a breakthrough has now been claimed with Juno – a 3.5 metre-wide graphene-skinned aircraft unveiled at Farnborough Air Show 2018.

Juno, whose namesake in Roman mythology was otherwise known as the ‘queen of heaven’, “demonstrates the great strides we’re making in [helping to] accelerate the uptake of graphene … into industry,” says UCLAN engineering innovation manager Billy Beggs.

Graphene-skinned planes fly like any other – just much more efficiently. The super-strong, super-thin covering means planes will be lighter, allowing them to conserve more fuel at take-off and landing, carry heavier payloads, and in general get better mileage on a tank of jet fuel.

And because of the greater conductivity of their skin, lightning strikes are dispersed over the surface of the plane rather than damaging any one area.

The next steps will involve flying Juno and conducting further tests.