Airbus and its partners are exploring how graphene-based anti-icing systems can offer a low-weight and highly efficient alternative for the next generation of passenger jets.
Under the graphene-based thermoelectric ice protection system (GICE) Spearhead Project coordinated by the Graphene Flagship, the aerospace giant is exploring how rovings, nanotubes and metallic heating wires can be used to improve the functionality of these systems in future designs of its airliners.
Graphene has many advantages, including flexibility, low weight, reduced thermo-mechanical stress during heating cycles, and higher efficiency, to name a few.
The material can be used within components from wings and rudders to rotor blades and air inlets, to make the anti-icing process more effective and more efficient.
Graphene ice protection
Speaking to FINN, Elmar Bonaccurso, who works within the Airbus Central Research and Technology department, said: “Since the beginning of aviation, aircraft have needed protection from icing and snow, so the technologies that we’re using are very robust. Currently, they use quite some energy: for big aircraft, that is hot air from the engines – bleed air – and this is air which is heated by burning kerosene, so from an energy point of view, it’s not so efficient.
“Another drawback of the current anti ice system is that this air is very hot, so we cannot use it when we have composite parts. Now, more and more parts of aircraft and helicopters are made out of composites, so we need technologies that will not heat as much and where we are able to control the temperature.”
This is where graphene promises a huge leap forward in terms of material and design.
Bonaccurso said: “With the graphene heater, by controlling the amount of current, we control the temperature. Graphene really holds the promise that if we add it to our composite, to our coatings, we are able to better control the temperature, turn it on and off when we want it really quickly on or really quickly off, and also to be able to apply it to components that are more complex in shape.”
He added: “The same holds for sensors. Now we have sensors that are very robust, but they are also large. These thinner sensors are also smaller, and we can place them on more areas of an aircraft so that we can sense the presence of ice on the whole aircraft, not just on one or two points.
“Also, we can use the system with a bit more judgement, to de-ice only where it is really required. When icing is forming, now we turn on the whole system and use a lot of energy. So in the future we could say the left wing or the right wing is iced, let’s de-ice that one. There are a number of advantages.”
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Graphene can protect metals, composites or ceramic materials from environmental hazards, and its high thermal and electrical conductivities can be used to increase the performance of a particular material. Its uses range from motors to on-board systems and thermal actuators.
Bonaccurso said graphene was also both flexible and versatile. “Existing materials are quite rigid, and the thing is, if we have small elements, like an air intake, or a curved rotor blade for helicopters, we’re not able to bend these elements, and we need to make most use out of the heat that is generated so a lot of heat would be wasted.
“This new graphene-based material is like sticky tape, very drapable and we can apply it just where we need it.”
Graphene holds a huge potential to improve aircraft systems but a challenge standing in its way is certification from regulators who are naturally cautious of new materials and technology.
“Aerospace is a very conservative industry in terms of certification,” Bonaccurso acknowledged. “We’re testing it, and we need to be sure that it’s not failing. We are at a level from a technology-readiness of around five, we need to go to nine, just to show that the material is robust enough, but then also the certification needs to be done. And this is when not only Airbus or the supply chain is responsible, but also the regulators.
“This can take an additional two years or so. So of course we plan to put it on on our vehicles and our products, but the timeline is longer than for the launch of a smartphone. From now, it may take somewhere between eight and 10 years.”
That timeline and the costs and manufacturing challenges involved in retrofitting the existing fleet of Airbus aircraft means graphene technology is likely to be reserved for the plane-maker’s next generation of airframes, though smaller products like helicopters could be retrofitted – especially the rotor blades, which can be exchanged.
“We won’t be able to retrofit this system into the existing fleet of Airbus passenger aircraft because it’s a completely different system, that would simply be too costly,” he said.
“But the new generation of aircraft could have this system because they will have composite wings, which the current aircraft do not have. The wings are made out of aluminium, especially the parts that are de-iced like the leading edges.
“For the next generation, we can start considering this new system from the design phase.”
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