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Navy Seeks Graphene Nanoribbons for Electricity Distribution

USS Zumwalt

All electric-powered Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer (U.S. Navy, courtesy of General Dynamics)

20 July 2015. The U.S. Navy wants a more efficient way to distribute electric power on its ships, and believes ultrathin ribbons made of graphene may help them do it. The Office of Naval Research awarded an $800,000 grant to the lab led by engineering professor Cemal Basaran at University at Buffalo to find out more about graphene nanoribbons for electric power switching.

The Navy is become more interested in electric energy to power its ships and weapons, as well as support systems and devices on the ships. In October 2013, the Navy launched the first of its Zumwalt class destroyers, propelled by electric motors rather than combustion engines, and is designing electronic weapons systems, such as lasers and railguns that use electromagnetic currents to fire long-range projectiles.

This growing reliance on electric power is encouraging the Navy to look into more efficient ways of distributing power around these ships and to these systems. Today’s technologies use copper wires and transformers, which are inefficient, require more components, and generate a great deal of heat.

Graphene, on the other hand, is a material closely related to graphite like that used in pencils, but consists of only a single layer of carbon atoms arrayed in a hexagonal mesh pattern. The material is very light, strong, chemically stable, and can conduct both heat and electricity, with applications in fields such as electronics, energy, and health care. Greater efficiency in moving power can mean better system performance, less reliance on fossil fuels, and savings to the taxpayer.

In the four-year project, Basaran and colleagues will investigate using nanoscale ribbons made from graphene as the medium for distributing power in these advanced ships and weapons. Basaran, director of Buffalo’s Electronic Packaging Lab and the project’s principal investigator, says in a university statement, “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.”

The researchers plan to test the capabilities of graphene nanoribbons through complex power-switching simulations. The team expects as well to find the failure limits of graphene nanoribbons under high power loads, and seek ways of raising those limits. Among the ways of improving the performance of nanoribbons is chemically enhancing the graphene with hydrogen or other elements, which the Buffalo team plans to explore.

Basaran notes that graphene production methods make it easier to alter its composition if needed. “The beauty of graphene is that it can be grown like biological organisms as opposed to manufacturing materials with traditional techniques,” says Basaran. “These bio-inspired materials allow us to control their atomic organizations like controlling genetic DNA makeup of a lab-grown cell.”

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