By Matthew Lowe

Graphene is one of the world’s thinnest, strongest and conductive materials. At approximately 200 times stronger than steel, it stands to reason that in time we may see it as a replacement for conventional steel construction. It is also a material that could improve the efficiency and sustainability of renewables, or help to reduce the energy storage problem. So when I learned of a STEMnet Graphene event at the Museum of Science and industry that needed industry volunteers, I was keen to attend. My two main aims were to learn about this material; gaining an insight into the potential applications it could have on building services in the future, and to try inspire the next generation into STEM/Cundall careers.

From five different schools, 80 pupils attended and throughout the day rotated their way through experiments/interactive demonstrations. I worked alongside the Graphene Scientists, who were PhD students from the University of Manchester Graphene institute, on each of the stands.

The students first learned about the nano scale itself where they were asked to imagine a ball and a standard 30cm ruler, then take the 1mm black line and split that a million times. That is the actual size of the molecular “ball”. This foundation idea helped them appreciate some of the difficulties in working through electron microscopes.

On the second stand, they looked at the actual structure of Graphene where the scientist explained the structure whilst building a Graphene honeycomb lattice. Students were then given the chance to play with plastic molecule pieces and challenged to build a carbon nanotube model.

An interactive session followed which gave participants the opportunity to make Graphene! Graphite filings were placed onto sellotape and the sellotape was then opened and closed repeatedly/rapidly. This action peels back the graphite layers to simply create Graphene in a manner that resembles how it was discovered. Individuals’ samples were placed underneath a microscope for examination on a large screen. Darker patches represented graphite and lighter, thinner, patches were Graphene.

On the final stall, applications of the material were considered. One scientist explained he was involved in Graphene stem cell research tackling the current methodologies for drug delivery. Targeting the faulty cell site rather than bombarding the whole body’s immune system is inherently appealing. Current research shows this may be possible. The idea is to release the required drug via a carbon nanotube directly into the center of the problem cells. Remembering that Graphene is conductive, it is possible to direct these cells to a site via magnets, meaning treatments will become less invasive. Cell repair to major diseases such as Parkinson’s are also being studied. It was interesting to learn that, referring back to the scale of Graphene, it is likely that such treatments will be small enough to not invoke a negative response and therefore increase success rates.

When the demonstrations and activities had finished on each stall, I took the opportunity to ask students how they felt about their careers and what they thought engineers really do. Some were unsure and others wanted to know the possibilities. Having recently worked on the North West Priority Schools project, it was fitting to be able to talk to school children about it.

With regards to applications in the building services industry, in reality, we are a long way from seeing Graphene-alloy building materials. There are some fundamental research challenges to overcome. But the strength and conductive properties of this material will undoubtedly become a building block for innovation and technical change.

Find out more about Cundall – http://www.cundall.com/

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Building Services Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Future Engineers, Matthew Lowe

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