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Graphene is being touted as a super-material that could revolutionize everything from computing to transportation, and a recently announced application of this unique form of carbon is expected to enable the modernization of rail transport by facilitating the incorporation of new digital signaling technology.
American engineering firm AECOM recently debuted a 3D-printed graphene-infused structure that arches over a railway. By simplifying the installation of digital signaling technology, the new ‘CNCTArch’ arch has the potential to completely revolutionize railway networks, according to AECOM.
Standing 4.5 meters tall, the novel railway arch is fabricated from a graphene-infused polymer. The graphene material works as a kind of reinforcement for the arch, facilitating a high weight-to-strength ratio. The amount of graphene that is typically necessary to make these kinds of structures are considerably greater than for other applications.
How Could 3D-Printed Graphene Structures Revolutionize Railway Networks?
According to AECOM, the CNCTArch would get rid of the need to affix new digital devices to current infrastructure. This benefit could decrease costs associated with installing digital systems on rail transportation networks.
The American company said it developed the CNCTArch after listening to complaints from its transportation clients regarding the expense and time required to modernize the current signaling systems. AECOM said its efforts were focused on eliminating the conventional bolt-and-screws approach of setting up digital systems inside tunnels, which requires around four shifts to install. AECOM engineers ended up creating an arch to which digital devices could be attached. The CNCTArch does not need to be connected to existing structures and requires just one shift to set up. The arch can be deployed in tunnels and out in the open.
The CNCTArch was created by AECOM together with Scaled, a 3D printing service provider. The Scaled 3D printing system was comprised of an extruder connected to a robotic arm.
Using this type of assembly, the Scaled printer is able to generate single structures 2 and 3 meters across. According to the company, they are capable of expanding this capability by simply using a larger robotic arm. Scaled's system uses pelletized feedstock to fabricate items due to its faster print times.
Testing the CNCTArch for Future Railway Use
AECOM has been testing the CNCTArch, which is a first step in the direction of the possible commercialization of the technology. A prototype has been installed on an outdoor track in the UK, and the company has been testing it in collaboration with Network Rail, the country's predominant railway management organization.
The CNCTArch is just one example of how 3D printing is enabling the modernization of existing transport networks. In March 2019, German, Austrian and Italian rail operators signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate under the Mobility goes Additive network – a group of logistics and transport companies dedicated to advancing 3D printing applications in their respective industries.
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Under the agreement, the three operators – Deutsche Bahn (Germany), Austrian Federal Railways and Trenitalia (Italy) – have agreed to work together to identify areas in rail transport that have potential for applications of 3D printing.
One of the assets of this agreement is a ‘digital spare parts’ warehouse that can be accessed to fabricate actual spare parts via additive manufacturing. The digital warehouse has already been used to fabricate nearly 15,000 parts or other items.
Graphene Materials in Transport
In addition to using graphene for the modernization of railway networks, the material is also being studied for potential use in next-generation trains, planes and automobiles.
In May 2018, Malaysia’s national railway operator KTMB announced the completion of a diesel locomotive and trainset that uses a graphene-based supercapacitor to capture energy during braking; energy that is typically lost. The supercapacitor then discharges its stored energy to support acceleration.
The trainset is designed to operate at 120 km/h (75 mph), features digital passenger information systems and has a seating capacity of 200 to 220 passengers. The trainsets also have room for carrying parcels.
In December 2019, European research consortium Graphene Flagship staged a conference that included publishing a review paper on the potential use of graphene-reinforced composites in airplanes and automobiles.
There appears to be a particularly significant upside to the potential use of graphene-reinforced materials in the fuselages of commercial aircraft, according to reports coming out of the conference. In the course of a typical day, an aircraft will experience temperature swings of 60 degrees Celsius or more as it travels from ground level into the atmosphere and back down to ground level.
Airplanes are also routinely hit by lightning strikes, which can have devastating consequences. Representatives from Airbus who attended the conference said the company is dedicated to researching graphene-related materials in aerospace applications because of their potential to withstand challenging conditions.
Meanwhile, conference representatives from Fiat Chrysler said they are looking into graphene composites to create safer vehicles.
References and Further Reading
Jackson, B. (2019) SIGNAL FAILURE? AECOM’S 3D PRINTED GRAPHENE COULD FIX THAT. [Online] 3D Printing Industry. Available at: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/signal-failure-aecoms-3d-printed-graphene-could-fix-that-160478/ (Accessed on 28 April 2020).
Railway Gazette International (2018) Graphene supercapacitor DMU fleet takes shape. [Online] Available at: https://www.railwaygazette.com/traction-and-rolling-stock/graphene-supercapacitor-dmu-fleet-takes-shape/46515.article (Accessed on 28 April 2020).
Foley, T. (2019) Graphene Flagship partners up European academia and industry to make lighter composites for planes and cars. [Online] Graphene Flagship. Available at: https://graphene-flagship.eu/news/Pages/Graphene-takes-off-in-composites-for-planes-and-cars-.aspx (Accessed on 28 April 2020).
Essop, A. (2019) MAJOR EUROPEAN RAILWAYS SIGN MOU TO IDENTIFY APPLICATIONS FOR ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING. [Online] 3D Printing Industry. Available at: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/major-european-railways-sign-mou-to-identify-applications-for-additive-manufacturing-153329/ (Accessed on 28 April 2020).