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Graphene Nanoribbons Could Replace Traditional Power Control Systems

University at Buffalo engineers have been awarded an $800,000 grant by the Office of Naval Research to create narrow strips of graphene called nanoribbons, may someday revolutionize how power is controlled in ships, smartphones and other electronic devices.

The U.S. Navy is keen to find alternatives to traditional power control systems. So far the U.S. Navy supplies electricity aboard a majority of its ships similar to a power company, and therefore depends on transformers, conductors and other massive infrastructure. Although this has been functional, the advent of highly advanced and powerful weapons and the immense focus on energy efficiency has prompted the Navy to find replacements.

One material, which has been making waves since its discovery in 2004 is graphene. Researchers world over have begin using graphene to enhance various products ranging from solar cells to smartphone batteries.

We need to develop new nanomaterials capable of handling greater amounts of energy densities in much smaller devices. Graphene nanoribbons show remarkable promise in this endeavor.

Cemal Basaran, PhD, a professor in UB’s Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the grant’s principal investigator.

Graphene can be defined as a single layer of carbon atoms placed together in a honeycomb-like structure. The material is strong, thin and light, and is a very good conductor of heat and electricity.

The beauty of graphene is that it can be grown like biological organisms as opposed to manufacturing materials with traditional techniques. These bio-inspired materials allow us to control their atomic organizations like controlling genetic DNA makeup of a lab-grown cell.

Basaran, director of UB’s Electronic Packaging Laboratory and a researcher in UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics.

Although graphene is very promising, researchers are still trying to understand its full potential. One particular area of interest is power control units.

Some ships depend on copper or other metals to transmit electricity similar to overhead power lines. However this method is not very efficient as electrons tend to collide with each other and produce heat in a process called Joule heating.

“You lose a great deal of energy that way,” Basaran says. “With graphene, you avoid those collisions because it conducts electricity in a different process, known as semi-ballistic conduction. It’s like a high-speed bullet train versus bumper cars.”

Metal-based power distribution has another disadvantage - bulky infrastructure. It occupies a lot of space and adds to the overall weight whether it is in a ship or a tablet computer.

On the other hand, graphene nanoribbons can act both as a conductor to replace copper and as a semiconductor to replace silicon, thereby offering a probable solution. Additionally, graphene nanoribbons possess the capacity to handle failure caused by extreme energy loads, about 1,000 times greater than copper.

This would suit the Navy, which like the automotive industry, is moving toward electric vehicles. Recently, an all-electric destroyer was launched. This destroyer’s propellers and drive shafts are operated by electric motors instead of being connected to combustion engines.

The integrated power-generation and distribution unit is likely to be used to fire highly advanced weapons, such as powerful lasers and railguns. Due to the automation, the Navy has been able to reduce the ship’s crew, thereby deploying lesser number of sailors in dangerous scenarios.

Basaran stated that graphene nanoribbons could benefit these systems by improving their sturdiness and energy efficiency.

Going forward, Basaran’s team will be involved in designing complex simulations that analyze the ways graphene nanoribbons can be used as a power switch. They will be investigating the ways to add hydrogen and other elements to graphene nanoribbons to improve their performance using a process called as “doping”. Additionally they will also be studying graphene nanoribbons’ failure limit under high power loads and finding ways to enhance it.


Stuart Milne

Written by

Stuart Milne

Stuart graduated from the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff with a first-class honours degree in Industrial Product Design. After working on a start-up company involved in LED Lighting solutions, Stuart decided to take an opportunity with AZoNetwork. Over the past five years at AZoNetwork, Stuart has been involved in developing an industry leading range of products, enhancing client experience and improving internal systems designed to deliver significant value for clients hard earned marketing dollars. In his spare time Stuart likes to continue his love for art and design by creating art work and continuing his love for sketching. In the future Stuart, would like to continue his love for travel and explore new and exciting places.


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