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From EMBA to carbon cables

A project to develop lightweight carbon nanomaterials in airplanes and other transport, which originated as an Executive MBA consulting project at Cambridge Judge, wins recognition from EUREKA to develop prototype materials.

Airplane flying overclouds. This is a 3d render illustration

An alliance to explore the potential of lightweight carbon nanomaterials for airplane cables and other applications has received recognition by the EUREKA agency, an important step for a project with roots in a consulting project at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Benoit Gauthier

Benoit Gauthier (EMBA 2011)

The Smartcarbon Alliance involves collaborators in Britain, France and Chile, and evolved from the Cambridge Nano-Manufacturing Alliance, which was founded by Benoit Gauthier and fellow students while on the Executive MBA (EMBA) programme at Cambridge Judge in 2011.

The EUREKA Label will help the Smartcarbon Alliance with funding and recognition, through a 420,000 euro (£364,000) prototype project, a carbon-based electrical cable that has promise in electrified cars, drones and other emerging transport technologies, says Benoit.

There can be 2,000 kilometres of cables in modern passenger airliners, so a reduction in weight and girth of cabling is a key goal of the aviation industry and other sectors looking at new types of transport. Carbon nanomaterials have 100 times the strength of steel, the thermal properties of diamond and better connectivity than copper.

“Full carbon nano cables would have one tenth the weight of carbon cables, and a hybrid cable (carbon and copper) could save between five per cent and 50 per cent in weight,” says Benoit. “It depends on the power needed for specific uses, and this is the sort of thing we will be testing as we develop the prototype.”

In very simple terms: electrons “surf” in carbon-based tubular cables, and are “pushed” by other electrons in copper cables – so there is the potential for far less loss of electricity if the carbon nanotechnology lives up to its potential.

Benoit is now Chief Financial Officer of Airbus Helicopters in Chile, and also scouts out innovative technologies for the broader Airbus group based in Toulouse, France, where he is from.

The Smartcarbon Alliance includes Airbus Helicopters, NAWATechnologies of France (a spin-off of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission), Cametics (Cambridge Advanced Metals ), and TANChile. Benoit said that the EUREKA Label will help the startup collaborators tap government innovation funds in their respective countries.

EUREKA is an intergovernmental agency established in 1985, now involving more than 40 countries including Chile, France and the UK, which supports and promotes market-oriented project generation through research and development. Funding for projects winning the EUREKA Label come from national government departments or agencies.

Airbus is providing specifications for the carbon nano-cables for potential use in their aircraft, and the prototype will be based on these specifications. Benoit says the participation of Airbus is important, because it introduces a practical and potentially important industrial application to the project.

“Startups can have the best technology in the world, but without the proper specifications they won’t succeed,” he says. “The key to the success of nanotechnology is to maintain the magic at larger scale.”

The prototype cabling being developed by the Smartcarbon Alliance will be tested at the Maxwell Centre, part of the University of Cambridge. The Nanomaterials Group at the University’s Department of Materials Science has been working with Benoit since his Cambridge Judge EMBA Team Consulting Project six years ago.

The Team Consulting Project, a compulsory part of the EMBA programme at Cambridge Judge, involves students forming into small teams to act as consultants on an agreed project for client organisations. This can include companies and not-for-profit organisations. It provides an opportunity to put learning into practice across many areas of the EMBA programme.

Recent EMBA Team Consulting Projects have included a feasibility study on integrating Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Czech Republic, and how technology can enable the outsourcing of legal processes in Germany.

The application of nano-carbon materials to the aviation industry is just one potential use of these materials, as Benoit believes that the technology itself has much wider applications to different industries.

Benoit says he has also been working with the Chilean Senate Commission for the Challenge of the Future, and that the Smartcarbon Alliance concept is being considered as a country strategic investment project candidate through Chilean economic development agency CORFO.

“We’re really excited about this project because we think it’s an important prototype for carbon cabling and for this type of alliance itself,” Benoit says of the carbon nanomaterial project. “We’re trying to prove that we can go faster through collaborative innovation, and we hope to reproduce this sort of alliance into the future.”