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Drones May Open Aviation Market for U.K.'s Applied Graphene

  • Getting approval for new materials in drones easier than jets
  • Applied Graphene CEO also eyes coatings, plane interior market

Using graphene in unmanned drones may be among the fastest ways for Applied Graphene Materials Plc to introduce the strongest material known to mankind into the lucrative aviation industry, Chief Executive Officer Jon Mabbitt said in an interview.

Gaining approval to use new materials in commercial planes can take years because of safety considerations. As a former executive at aerospace composites-maker Umeco Ltd, Mabbitt said it took about a decade to get a composite material qualified for use in the wing of an Airbus Group SE’s A350 jetliner. The time needed for new materials in the types of remote-controlled aircraft being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. can be as little as two years, he said.

Jon Mabbitt
Jon Mabbitt
Source: Richard Wood/Visual Media

A pure carbon film one atom thick, graphene is 200 times stronger than steel and 70 times more conductive than silicon. Dubbed a “wonder material” with discoverers winning the Nobel Prize in 2010, it has grabbed headlines with its potential to revolutionize the weight and strength of products from chrome car-bumpers to ship coatings. Companies like Applied Graphene are racing to crack how to viably make large volumes of high-quality material and gain approval for use in industries like aeronautics.

“Qualification times on aircraft interiors, such as galleys and seating, can be much shorter too," Mabbitt said in the interview last week in London. He’s seeking graphene orders in specialized areas such as corrosion-resistant paint and aircraft parts, rather than replacing carbon black in car tires, which would require more basic-quality graphene. The CEO said he’s working with three of the top five paint companies. Applied Graphene said in a statement today its collaborating with U.S.-based Sherwin-Williams Co.

“If we wanted to be really showy, we could put a bit of graphene into a sports shoe and tell the world about it, but that’s not what we are about,” Mabbitt said. For the markets it’s focusing on, requests for product samples could change into full-blown production orders “in the near future,” he said.

Founded by Karl Coleman in 2010 based on technology developed at Durham University, the company has yet to report a profit or significant orders. Earlier this month, it raised 8.5 million pounds in a share placement to provide funds for expanding capacity. IP Group Plc, an investor in technology-based startups and companies, is the biggest shareholder.

Aviation’s transition from metals such as aluminum to composites could also open opportunities for graphene including in military planes like those under development at Boeing’s Phantom Works and Lockheed’s Skunk Work departments. Mabbitt declined to comment.

One of the problems with carbon-fiber composite structures such as wings is that they can suffer from what’s known as “barely visible impact damage” that causes a weakening in the body of the material, according to Mabbitt. Toughening the composite with graphene can help, he said.

Applied Graphene shares have declined 9.6 percent in the past year, giving the company a market value of 38.3 million pounds ($55 million). The stock rose as much as 1.5 percent to 175 pence as of 11:47 a.m. in London.

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