Graphene: the supermaterial of the future that is starting to take over the roads

For those who don’t know it, graphene is basically carbon on steroids. It is formed by carbon atoms strongly linked in a hexagonal structure the shape of a beehive and only one atom thick. Not only is it extremely resistant (200 times more than steel), but it’s harder than a diamond. It is, literally, the most resistant material known in nature. But at the same time, it is a highly flexible material.

And graphene’s ultra characteristics don’t end there. It’s also very light (one square meter weighs less than a gram), hydrophobic and with a high capacity for conducting electricity and heat. In other words, it doesn’t weigh anything, it won’t get wet and it’s capable of heating up and transmitting energy. In addition, since it is composed of pure carbon, it is a completely ecological material.

 

But the best thing is that all these properties can be spread around to many of the mixes where it is present: there are dozens of applications for graphene. And right now, that list is only growing. From engineering projects and electronic devices to running shoes and even (the potential) for conserving works of art. But one of its most promising applications is in developing new generations of highways. 

 

While its high capacity to conduct heat might make it a perfect material for building roads in places with very low temperatures, its flexibility and high resistance would considerably reduce the need for maintaining and renewing highways. 

Last September a pilot project using graphene began on a stretch of nearly five kilometers  of the A1 in Northumberland, in the northeast of England. The use of graphene to build highways, in combination with asphalt and cement, is relatively recent, although there are some precedents. It was used for the first time in Rome in 2018 as part of a composite called Gipave that contains graphene and hard plastic, and since then it has also been used in Kent, also in England.

 

Nevertheless, the Northumberland project was the first to use it completely on the ground and starting from recycled asphalt. It is part of an effort to determine if graphene really increases the useful life of the pavement and reduces the need to repair and renew it. The A1 renewal project was developed jointly between Britain’s National Highways authority, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre of the University of Manchester, and Pavement Testing Services. 

If this pilot project is successful, the use of graphene would not only lengthen the capacity of highways but also promote sustainability. The problem of cement and asphalt on their own is their very high emission of greenhouse gases. Cement is the material with the greatest of such emissions, and is responsible for 8% of worldwide emissions. The use of graphene in small amounts to build highways could have the effect of reducing them by between 25 and 33%.

 

In the future, with greater use of graphene in electronic devices and in engineering projects like highways, the possibilities could increase even more thanks to the properties of this material. In a world where all the cars could be electric, the fact that the road contains an element that is so easily conducts electricity could allow there to be more and more of these roads. Recharging the car’s battery directly from the road while waiting at a stop light –or while a car is parked anywhere along a street– might no longer be fiction and become reality.

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