Sunderland University

The world's thinnest material is set to revolutionise the automotive industry, and the University of Sunderland is driving research forward.

Graphene is a material made from a single layer of carbon atoms. Discovered in 2010, it is the thinnest, lightest and strongest material known to man. Stronger than diamond, and 100 times stronger and much lighter than steel, it’s an ultra-thin layer of pure carbon, one atom thick.

Since the discovery, the European Commission is investing €1bn as part of the Graphene Flagship over 10 years, which aims to take graphene related technologies from academic laboratories to everyday use.

Professor Ahmed Elmarakbi, Professor of Automotive Composites at Sunderland, is part of the Graphene Flagship and leading a pioneering project exploring how graphene can be used to create lighter, stronger, safer and more energy-efficient vehicles.

The automotive industry is widely viewed as being the industry in which the greatest volume of advanced composite materials will be used. However, due to the trade-off between light vehicles and safety standards, new directions need to be adopted to overcome safety issues.

Professor Elmarakbi’s role leading the graphene automotive application, alongside partners in Italy, Spain and Germany, has created many opportunities to network and engage around the world.

Professor Elmarakbi commented: “There are many challenges to overcome and questions to answer. There is also work to be done to develop a practical, reliable and capable tool to analyse and design the new graphene-based polymer composites, and study the crashworthiness optimisation for its structures and their applications in the automotive industry. These graphene-based polymer composites are still in infancy stage.

“Our goal is to combine these novel ‘concept’ materials with the latest safety design approaches, efficient fabrication and manufacturing processes, and life-cycle analysis to reduce the environmental impact of future vehicles.”

Professor Elmarakbi’s work has also come to the attention of the Chinese Government. Via Hunan University, he is one of only 10 professors worldwide to be invited to join the prestigious Talents-111 project. 

Professor Elmarakbi explained: “The opportunity to work on the Talents-111 is a huge honour and an incredible opportunity, both to develop my research, to collaborate with other scientists and to enhance teaching – as well as create exchange opportunities for students in Sunderland.”

The Chinese Government led initiative selects leading scientists and funds intensive laboratory-based research projects. The project into vehicle body light-weighting runs for four years from 2016-2020.