Virgin Group founder Richard Branson never stops thinking of ways to make airplanes better.
In a blog post on Tuesday, Branson discussed graphene, a newly-developed carbon material which, according to him, could be “the next revolutionary step in building lighter, safer and more efficient planes.”
Graphene was discovered in 2004 at the University of Manchester. In graphene, carbon atoms are arranged in perfect hexagons — resembling a bee colony’s honeycombs — to form a perfect, thin sheet. It’s like graphite just sliced thinner and thinner until it’s only one atom thick.
Graphene is incredibly thin, strong, and flexible while remaining extremely light. It's so thin, in fact, that it's often referred to as the world’s first two-dimensional material.
This past week, Branson visited the National Graphene Institute in Manchester to discuss the aeronautic possibilities of the new material.
By using graphene as opposed to aluminum or carbon fiber, plane manufacturers could cut the weight of the aircraft, thus increasing fuel efficiency. Researchers at the University of Manchester say this is a very long-term project, however, and is probably at least 20 years away.
In terms of short-term goals, manufacturers could replace smaller parts of the plane with graphene — most notably the carbon fiber in the wings of the plane, which is needed to stop water from getting in, but adds unnecessary weight.