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Richard Branson may be the secret of building the best aircraft yet

(Reuters)

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson never stops thinking of ways to make aircraft better.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Branson discussed graphene, a newly developed carbon material that, according to him, could be “the next revolutionary step in the construction of lighter, safer and more efficient aircraft.”

Graphene was discovered in 2004 at the University of Manchester. In graphene, carbon atoms are arranged in perfect hexagons — looks like a hive’s honeycombs — to form a perfect, thin sheet. It’s like graphite, just cut thinner and thinner, until only one atom thick.

Graphene is incredibly thin, strong and flexible, while remaining extremely light. It is so thin, that it is in fact often referred to as the world’s first two-dimensional material.

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This past week, Branson visited the National Graphene Institute in Manchester to discuss the aviation capabilities of the new material.

By the use of graphene, in contrast to aluminum or carbon fiber, airplane manufacturers could reduce the weight of the aircraft, therefore increasing fuel efficiency. Researchers at the University of Manchester say this is a long-term project, however, and is likely to be at least 20 years away.

In terms of short-term goals, the manufacturers are able to replace smaller parts of the plane with graphene — namely, the carbon fiber in the wings of the aircraft, that is required to stop water from getting in, but adds unnecessary weight.

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