An artist's impression of a future plan to build a gigantic graphene column that extends into space. Photo: Weibo

A two-dimensional form of carbon known as graphene might one day help power China’s spacecraft. Graphene, just one atom thick, could enable light-powered propulsion technology leading to fuel-free spacecraft, Chinese material scientists told Xinhua.

Traditional spacecraft are powered by chemical propellants, which means that how far they can fly is limited by how much fuel they can carry, as the weight of fuel eats into the payloads of modern rockets and space shuttles. For instance, as much as 80% of the takeoff weight of current carrier rockets is made up of chemical propellants.

Graphene is an allotrope of carbon consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. It has many uncommon properties as one of the strongest and thinnest known materials, and it conducts heat and electricity efficiently and is virtually transparent.

Now graphene made of carbon as well as light from stars in the universe have the potential to supply almost inexhaustible energy to future spaceships, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

The United States, Europe and Japan have been developing spacecraft with solar sails made with polyamide film, but the thrust generated in this way is said to be relatively weak. Now Chinese researchers are developing sails made from graphene, which can withstand temperatures over 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Farenheit).

Previous research conducted by Professor Chen Yongsheng with the Tianjin-based Nankai University, showed graphene could be driven by various light sources including sunlight, and that, in the vacuum conditions of outer space, the thrust generated is 1,000 times higher than that of polyamide film.

There were also reports in previous years that commercial graphene-based supercapacitors could be chosen for use in spacecraft.

Skeleton Technologies, a Germany-based technology firm, reportedly devised a unique process in 2015 to produce “curved graphene” from silicon carbide, which it used in their line of commercially available supercapacitors. The company stated that their products could deliver twice as much energy storage capacity and five times more performance power compared with other traditional ultracapacitors. The high degree of purity of curved graphene also ensures up to two times higher tolerance, and four times lower resistance.

The European Space Agency has chosen the company’s products for use in its spacecraft. The technology could allow the packaging of a large amount of power into a very small space.

Xinhua also admitted that lot of research and verification are needed to turn a theory into usable technology for a spaceship with graphene wings that harness light to fly.

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