Members of the team include, clockwise from from bottom left, Megan Hathcock, Nick Davies, Jacob Horton, Ryan Scalf, Zach Reasoner and Assunta De Pau.

An experiment conducted at the University of Alabama (UA) indicates graphene could be beneficial for car companies.

A student team at UA taking part in a national competition called EcoCar3, developed a fully functional hybrid car that simultaneously uses less energy and emits less pollution without sacrificing factors like performance, safety, and consumer appeal. As part of this project, the team successfully fabricated a lighter hood created from graphene into a Chevy Camaro, proving the cutting-edge material can work on a consumer car.

The graphene was created by a venture called Graphenics, founded by Dr. Rachel Frazier, who served as the assistant director of the Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs Center at UA.

“The business model of Graphenics is that we incorporate graphene into existing products. We’re basically an advanced materials company focused on developing and testing the product for clients,” explained Frazier to R&D Magazine in an exclusive interview.

Graphene is an atomically thin layer of the mineral graphite that is stronger and lighter than any metal or carbon-based material. Reports have suggested this material has applications in a variety of industries, but Frazier’s team found a way to manufacture a unique form of graphene.

“We have a unique way to take graphite and exfoliate it into high quality sheets of graphene through a novel chemical process. This technique is so unique because it does not oxidize graphene and reduces electrostatic interactions with the graphene so the carbon sheets do not get altered,” said Frazier.

Essentially, this technique produces graphene sheets with no impurities and can maintain their shape as they exfoliate.

The experiment

The UA team performed a series of computer modeling and material tests before settling on a carbon fiber hood made with less than one percent of graphene.

The final product was the first hood to be fused with this material, which is traditionally created from aluminum.

Next, the students conducted a testing apparatus enabling them to mimic a 30-mph head-on collision with weights.

Frazier told R&D Magazine the hood was able to bounce back and return to its original form, noting Graphenic’s material gave the part an additional level of ductility.

The addition of the graphene hood still met federal auto safety standards, as it fit flush with the rest of the car and was able to keep its hinges intact without shattering or penetrating the windshield during a crash.

Also, the participants were able to overcome the project constraint of keeping the cost of the hood within five times the cost of the original hood without the advantages of a large-scale factory.

Further development

The next phase of this four year competition will occur next year, but the experiment indicates this process could help achieve the fuel efficiency standards established by the Obama Administration.

These guidelines were established in August 2012 in an effort to,” increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Year 2025,” according to the announcement at the time. The initial goal was to use this process to help consumers save more than $1.7 trillion at the pump while also dropping U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels.

Frazier said graphene could help spur this effort, even though the Trump Administration has made it clear it plans to roll back the rules the prior administration had set up.   

Still, Frazier is optimistic that graphene has plenty of other applications in the automotive space, including using it in wheels or interior parts.

“It’s definitely a material that we will see in products in the future. A lot of the initial investment was driven by scaling up the processes to make graphene but demand needs to be created for it by showing its viable in existing products” said Frazier.