The graphene supercharge: pioneering sustainable heating through graphene-enhanced thermal polymers

As the world continues to seek cleaner and more efficient energy solutions influenced by net-zero targets, graphene-enhanced thermal polymers are fast becoming a revolutionary material in water heating systems.

As the world continues to seek cleaner and more efficient energy solutions influenced by net-zero targets and the relentless global energy crisis, graphene-enhanced thermal polymers are fast becoming a revolutionary material in water heating systems.

In recent years, research and development initiatives by Senergy Innovations and First Graphene Ltd (FGR) have developed novel graphene-enhanced solar thermal panels that have a profound ability to absorb the thermal energy from the sun and transfer it to heat water.

Also known as solar collectors, this technology is different to electricity generating solar panels, instead utilising graphene-enhanced thermal polymers to harness the heat from sunlight and deliver a low carbon, energy-efficient and economical water heating solution.

Water heating is big business in the UK and Europe, commonly used in commercial and residential buildings to generate and store hot water for domestic and industrial use, as well as provide central heating to building spaces via a network of pipes, radiators or flooring systems.

The practice of heating water has traditionally relied on carbon intensive materials and fossil fuel burning furnaces that often lack efficiency, sustainable outcomes and attract high energy costs.

Analysis from UK energy regulator Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) identified domestic gas boilers emit over eight and a half times as much nitrogen oxide than all the UK’s gas power plants combined, with the average electric water heater responsible for roughly three tons of carbon dioxide annually, nearing the same amount generated by the average automobile.

There is significant need for industry and government to address extensive emissions and energy consumption caused by water heating systems. According to the Energy Savings Trust, household emissions from heating and hot water must reduce by 95 per cent to reach the 2050 net-zero targets set by the UK government.

For some nations, energy prices hit record levels in 2022, exacerbated by straining demand and geopolitical conflicts that continue to impact energy supply chains. Households, businesses and industry are facing higher energy bills amid extreme price volatility, further driving demand for alternative solutions that provide lower energy consumption, improved stability and greater efficiency.

Harnessing the power of graphene-enhanced thermal polymers

Typically, solar thermal heating panels have been constructed from copper and aluminium, and despite its widespread use, the material has its drawbacks – complex assembly, susceptibility to corrosion, and considerable environmental impact.

Polymer composites are a promising alternative with advantageous properties such as enhanced durability, low-cost production and environmental resistance.

Figure 1 – Metallic based solar thermal flat plate collectors

While polymers are traditionally non-conductive, graphene and various other forms of graphite-based materials have exceptional thermal conductivity properties, enabling remarkable energy transfer capability when used in a polymer composite system.

These characteristics make graphene enhanced polymer composites an attractive metal alternative not only for solar thermal panels, but also for other engineering applications across the electronics, automotive, aerospace, medical, chemical processing and energy sectors.

Novel thermal polymer based solar panels developed by Senergy and First Graphene have tested the benefits that can be achieved by adding FGR’s PureGRAPH® graphene into the composite. The application enhances the solar collector’s ability to absorb and store the sun’s thermal energy, heating water that passes through via a heat transfer pump, ultimately delivering comparative performance to traditional metallic based collectors.

The development of these solar thermal collectors required a stable polymer and graphene formulation, with the aim of developing the technology to maintain suitable performance in low sunlight conditions. This patent pending breakthrough has been six years in the making, with Senergy leading the technology’s development.

Figure 2 – Solar thermal polymer panels

Pioneering a green future with graphene

The use of graphene-enhanced polymer composites enables a solar panel weight reduction of more than 30 per cent with vast enhancements also achieved in the materials thermal and electrical conductivity performance.

Further improvements are achieved through the compounds unique and durable characteristics including high strength, flexibility, chemical resistance, thermal stability, UV and wear resistance.

Figure 3 – Senergy Innovations solar thermal system

Preliminary carbon life-cycle assessment (LCA) has determined the thermal panels enable the reduction of CO2 emissions by up to 44 per cent when compared to existing solar collectors.

Additionally, the enhanced energy efficiency of the water heating system affords a competitive cost advantage to traditional natural gas and oil heating systems, reducing kilowatt consumption and subsequent costs by up to 80 per cent.

Commercial trials prime further technological optimisation

Senergy now has its sights set on running a maiden commercial scale trial in the second half of 2023. Initially the team will provide a bolt-on product that can be added to existing building structures, with the end goal of developing thermal polymer roof tiles that can be installed during new builds.

The organisation aims to feed commercial trial results and lessons learned into other industries, primarily across automotive and heat exchange applications.

The possibilities of thermally conductive polymers are endless, with opportunities to apply the materials unique properties across multiple engineering and commercial applications.

Market demand and value is forecast to increase commensurately. According to Spherical Insights, the global water heater market was valued at more than USD $30 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach USD $46 billion by 2032, presenting a vast opportunity for industry innovators and members of the supply chain like First Graphene to capitalise on.

The advent of these unique thermal polymer solar collectors, enhanced by the thermal conductivity properties of graphene and graphite, represents a significant advancement in sustainable heating.

This innovation, pioneered by First Graphene and its partners, is not just about reducing the carbon footprint of the water heating industry. It is about building a sustainable future where efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly materials replace antiquated options.