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Graphene promises success in space

In a collaboration between the Graphene Flagship and the European Space Agency, experiments testing graphene for two different space-related applications have proved promising and the Flagship is set to continue developing graphene devices for use in space.

“Graphene as we know has a lot of opportunities. One of them, recognised early on, is space applications, and this is the first time that graphene has been tested in space-like applications, worldwide,” said Prof. Andrea Ferrari (University of Cambridge, UK), Science and Technology Officer of the Graphene Flagship.

Graphene offers excellent thermal properties that are promising for improving the performance of loop heat pipes, thermal management systems used in aerospace and satellite applications and it could also have a use in space propulsion, due to its lightness and strong interaction with light.

The Graphene Flagship tested both these applications in recent experiments in November and December 2017.

The main element of the loop heat pipe is the metallic wick, where heat is transferred from a hot object into a fluid, which cools the system. Two different types of graphene were tested in a collaboration between the Microgravity Research Centre, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; the Cambridge Graphene Centre, University of Cambridge, UK; the Institute for Organic Synthesis and Photoreactivity and the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems, both at the National Research Council of Italy (CNR), Italy; and industry partner Leonardo Spa, Italy, a specialist in aerospace, operating in space systems and high-tech instrument manufacturing and in the management of launch and in-orbit services and satellite services.

“We are aiming at an increased lifetime and an improved autonomy of the satellites and space probes. By adding graphene, we will have a more reliable loop heat pipe, capable to operate autonomously in space,” said Dr Marco Molina, Chief Technical Officer of Leonardo’s space line of business.

The wicks for the loop heat pipes were tested in two ESA parabolic flight campaigns in November and December.

The results of the parabolic flight confirm the improvements to the wick, and the Flagship will continue to develop the graphene-based heat pipes towards a commercial product.

Testing graphene space-propulsion potential, a team of PhD students from Delft Technical University (TU Delft), Netherlands participated in ESA’s Drop Your Thesis! campaign, which offers students the chance to perform an experiment in microgravity at the ZARM Drop Tower in Bremen, Germany.

The team – named GrapheneX – designed and built an experiment to test graphene for use in solar sails, using free-floating graphene membranes provided by Flagship partner Graphenea. The idea was to test how the graphene membranes would behave under radiation pressure from lasers. In total, the experiment ran five times over 13-17 November 2017.

“Despite initial technical difficulties, we observed laser-induced motion of a graphene light sail," said Davide Stefani, GrapheneX team member.

The results of the two projects demonstrate graphene’s versatility and are the first step towards expanding the frontiers of graphene research.

Neil Tyler

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