Local Motors engineers testing graphene for potential use in 3D-printed cars

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Materials science and engineering is a rapidly developing field of study destined to have a growing commercial impact on the high-tech sector. In one way or the other, every hardware manufacturer in the world is a beneficiary when major breakthroughs occur in materials science.

To get a sense of how important research into materials science is, consider that manipulating a newly discovered material has often defined entire eras of human history (i.e. Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.). As we’ve moved into the Information Age in recent decades, computer power has helped us develop nanomaterials and advanced nearly every field from biomedical to water treatment.

Local Motors is benefiting from these advances as we work on developing 3D-printed vehicles. But more importantly, Local Motors is dedicated to helping pioneer nano materials research. One way we’re doing that is through a partnership with Standard Graphene, a South Korean company that specializes in graphene and battery technology. Local Motors also works with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to test graphene specimens.

Why is graphene so important? There are several reasons, but first, a little background on this amazing material.

The earliest few-layer images of graphene date back to 1948. They were observed by transmission electron microscope. At this time the thinnest observable samples were 50-100 layers thick. The microscopic scale of this material made it extremely difficult to isolate. A single-atom layer of graphene was not able to be produced until 2004. This breakthrough eventually earned two University of Manchester scientists a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

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The ideal crystalline structure of graphene is a hexagonal grid.

Pure graphene possesses incredible mechanical, electrical and thermodynamic properties. It’s stronger than steel, conducts electricity better than silver, and conducts heat better than diamond. It can be used as a nano-sized filler in polymers, enhancing the polymer’s strength and conductive properties. Reduced Graphene Oxide (rGO) is similar to graphene, but is created by oxidizing pure graphene. It contains favorable chemical surface properties that strengthen the polymer, but does not conduct heat and electricity as well.

Local Motors is experimenting with graphene and rGO to improve the properties of the carbon fiber/ABS plastic composite used in the 3D printing of our vehicles, as well as improving battery cell technology. The materials engineers at Local Motors in Knoxville have been testing what happens when graphene and rGO are compounded in our existing polymer, which is 80 percent ABS plastic and 20 percent carbon fiber. They have made a new compound where two percent of the total mass is graphene. The result has been that both rGO and graphene increase modulus (stiffness), tensile strength (pull), and overall failure strain (point at which a sample breaks) with rGO slightly outperforming pure graphene.

These initial results are exciting and promising for the team as they pursue their development of materials we will use in our 3D-printed vehicles. We will continue to update our materials testing and keep you abreast of the results.

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