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Op-ed | Graphene goes galactic

Artist’s concept based on data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope of graphene, buckyballs and C70 superimposed on an image of the Helix planetary nebula. Credit: NASA/IAC/NOAO/ESA/STSCI/NRAO

This op-ed originally appeared in the June 10, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

If humanity is to ever settle new planets, we will need radically new technologies; this much is obvious. But we may already have the perfect material to step up and fill the role: graphene. It is easily transported, easily manipulated, and an abundance of carbon in the galaxy could bode well for graphene, which is a carbon-based material. Its strength and versatility could well become a crucial component in colonization. For instance, spacecraft filled with advanced, massive 3D printers could ferry intrepid settlers to new corners of the galaxy, supplying a near-endless supply of material and equipment, perhaps even being used to construct homes that can withstand the conditions of other worlds.

Graphene’s discovery in 2004 sparked the flame of endless possibility within the science and technology communities due to its astounding properties. Only a single atomic layer thick and constructed in a lattice, honeycomb-like formation, graphene is nearly 200 times stronger than steel and better at conducting electricity and heat than any other conductor. It’s flexible, allows 97 percent of white light to pass through it (making it perfect for solar energy), and the list of properties continues.

Current research into graphene shows how far-reaching its capabilities are: graphene in CPUs, transistors and batteries, touchscreens, solar cells, DNA sequencing, water filters, and even in clothing are among the variety of ways that the material is being tested. Despite the obstacles graphene faces, such as its lack of a band gap when conducting electricity, it’s only a matter of time before we see it fundamentally change the technological and scientific landscapes of our society. This is why many claim that the 21st century will be the age of graphene in the same way that the 20th century was the age of plastic.

Scientists and technologists are excited by the potential applications of graphene to improve our technology here on Earth. But how will graphene help us in space, and what are scientists doing now to fulfill its potential?

Graphene has already seen developments in research for space applications. One unique moonshot use for graphene would be for the development of a space elevator. With lower operating costs and less risk, a space elevator would enable easier and more frequent space travel.

The theoretical elevator would consist of four parts: the base station and anchor, the counterweight and orbital space station, the tether that will bring people from the surface to space, and the elevator carriage. NASA began development on this project in earnest at the turn of the century, but after many trials, they couldn’t find a material strong enough to use for the tether. That is, until graphene.

A Graphene Flagship researcher aboard a European Space Agency sponsored Zero-G parabolic flight in May that tested graphene-based thermal management devices for space applications. Credit: Graphene Flagaship Credit: Graphene Flagaship

The strength of graphene alone has made it worthwhile for scientists to turn to the material for research as a viable candidate for the space tether. Scientists are hoping to craft graphene-based chains with enough tensile strength to support the elevator carriage as it travels. A team at Peking University recently created a near-perfect form of the material called single-crystal graphene, an intensely strong iteration of graphene that would certainly be able to make the space elevator a reality.

Scientists are also working with graphene to improve heat transfer efficiency in loop heat pipes. These pipes are cooling systems used frequently in satellites and aerospace instruments, pumping fluid without using mechanical parts to prevent the pipes from wearing out. By using graphene to coat the metallic wick of the loop heat pipe, heat transfer is performed much more efficiently, and graphene’s porous structure increases the amount of surface area for the liquid to touch, as well as allow the liquid to flow through the wick quicker.

To test it, graphene-coated loop heat pipes were brought aboard a parabolic flight, affectionately called the “vomit comet,” where a plane alternates between climbing and diving at a consistent rhythm to simulate microgravity for short periods of time. This was to test graphene’s durability in conditions similar to space, and the material successfully endured the flight. This is the closest we have come to an actual application of graphene in space, and increased performance of these cooling systems could mean increased endurance for longer exposure to conditions in space.

It’s not hard for the mind to wander to the even greater achievements that graphene could be the conduit for. As graphene is a carbon-based material, and with an abundance of carbon in our galaxy, we might be able to create a nearly infinite resource if we can discover how graphene is formed. NASA’s telescopes have already detected the existence of graphene in space, and its natural occurrence outside of Earth can lend scientists insight into the chemical reactions involving carbon in space that cause it to exist. By gaining a better understanding of graphene in this way, we can manufacture stronger and more versatile forms of graphene that can make space travel the stuff of science fiction.

Graphene’s applications in technology greatly affect what it could do for space travel as well. What if a graphene-laced computer processor were used inside a space shuttle? Its ability to rapidly perform complex calculations would minimize risks and make for an overall stronger system aboard spacecraft or even habitats on other planets or moons. The material’s strength would also allow it to supplement and support all structural aspects of space travel. Graphene could strengthen rocket infrastructure and protect any established habitats that may become a possibility in the future.

In addition, research toward the chemical components of graphene and carbon in space would mean a better understanding of how to create graphene ourselves. With an abundance of carbon in the galaxy, and spacecraft equipped with large 3D printers, we might be able to produce a nearly endless supply of graphene with which to create materials and homes, supplying the infrastructure for new and advanced human civilizations on other worlds.

Graphene’s obstacles to enabling such achievements have been many, but scientists and technologists around the globe are increasingly persistent and eager to experiment with graphene and realize the many possibilities that the material offers. Now more than ever the conversations have been circulating regarding space travel and colonizing other planets and moons. While it might seem like that’s still a faraway prospect, the discussions are happening for a reason. Technology and space travel have already come so far, and it’s possible that with graphene’s help, we’re nearly at the distant future we only dreamed of.

Don Basile is a part of the Graphene Innovation Investment Fund, where a team of technology investment and operating professionals help identify, invest in and build companies pursuing emerging opportunities in this area. As an emerging area of technology innovation that is projected to broadly impact our lives, Basile aims to give graphene and similar nanomaterials the opportunity to develop.