How Graphene Is Aiding Space ExplorationAug 18, 2020 | ACS MATERIAL, LLC
If humankind is ever going to settle new planets and conduct expansive space exploration, we’re going to need radically new technologies. Graphene is the perfect material to step in and lead the way. Graphene is abundant on our planet and, potentially, others; it’s also lightweight, easy to manipulate, versatile, and super strong. One single atomic layer of graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, better at conducting heat and electricity than any other material, and allows 97% of white light to pass through, making it an ideal material for solar energy. Graphene’s discovery in 2004 has sparked endless possibilities and ideas within NASA and the worldwide space industry. Here’s a sampling of the infinite ways graphene may change our relationship with space.
Graphene’s outstanding thermal properties make it an exciting solution to one of the most vexing challenges of space exploration: temperature. Managing heat, cold, and the wide fluctuations between extremes is essential for satellites and other electronic equipment to function properly in space. For example, the temperature difference between two sides of a satellite (one facing towards the sun and the other facing away) can be as great as 200 degrees Celsius! Removing excess heat from electronics is typically done using a loop heat pipe. Loop heat pipes cool electronic devices by using heat to evaporate fluid inside a wick made from porous metal. A graphene coating on the exterior of the wick improves the efficiency of loop heat pipes, improves heat transfer rates, and keeps equipment functioning optimally and autonomously for longer periods of time, both of which are essential to space exploration.
New Devices and On-the-Go Repairs
Astronauts living and working in space can’t run to the store for new batteries or replacement electronic components when equipment needs to be repaired, and bringing large stores of “extras” to space is prohibitive in terms of both cost and storage capacity. Long-term space exploration requires the ability to be highly self-sufficient, and graphene inks may make that possible. Printable graphene inks can be used to produce batteries, flexible electronic sensors, gauges, supercapacitors, printed electronics, and more, allowing astronauts to print their own devices and make repairs while on long-term space missions.
Take this concept one step further: Space colonists using graphene inks can create their own devices as they build settlements. Can you imagine 3D printing your own solar panels for a house on the moon created from carbon “mined” from space? Someone is imagining and working out the possibility of just that right now.
Does shining laser light onto flexible graphene “sails” generate thrust? Solar light sails made from thin graphene membranes may be able to propel satellites in space using light from lasers or even the sun. Satellites propelled in this way could go farther for longer periods of time than anything we have in space currently.
A Space Elevator?
One of the biggest barriers—possibly the biggest barrier—to space exploration is actually getting there. A space elevator could change that. Researchers at NASA have been exploring the idea of an elevator for years. The idea consists of a base station with an anchor, an orbital station with a counterweight, a tether, and a carriage. Finding a material strong enough for the tether has kept such an elevator from getting off the ground, but graphene may be the solution. Scientists are working to craft an intensely strong graphene-based chain from single-crystal graphene that could make a space elevator a reality.
Tomorrow Begins Today
While regular space travel and colonizing other planets may seem out of reach, our journey to turning those far-fetched ideas into reality begins today with graphene. The obstacles to enhanced space exploration are many, but nanomaterials such as graphene, graphene oxide, and graphene on SiO2 have the potential to provide the solutions needed to move us to the next step. ACS Material is excited to be at the forefront of graphene research. Our high-quality research-grade nanomaterials are the building blocks being used by scientists around the world who are searching for ways to move humankind up and out into the universe.