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Scientists spin thread-like carbon nanotech fibres

15 Jan 2013

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After 10 years of development, scientists at Rice University have announced their latest breakthrough in nanotechnology. They have developed a carbon nanotube (CNT) fibre which has textile thread-like properties, but conducts heat and electricity like metal wire. This breakthrough was a result of their collaboration with scientists from Dutch firm Teijin Aramid, the U.S. Air Force and Israel's Technion Institute.

"We finally have a nanotube fibre with properties that don't exist in any other material," said lead researcher Matteo Pasquali, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and chemistry at Rice. "It looks like black cotton thread but behaves like both metal wires and strong carbon fibres."

carbon nanotube fibre

Figure 1: Nanotubes are tightly packed in the new carbon nanotube fibres produced by Rice University and Teijin Aramid. This cross section of a test fibre, which was taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows only a few open gaps inside the fibre.

"The new CNT fibres have a thermal conductivity approaching that of the best graphite fibres but with 10 times greater electrical conductivity," said study co-author Marcin Otto, business development manager at Teijin Aramid. "Graphite fibres are also brittle, while the new CNT fibres are as flexible and tough as a textile thread. We expect this combination of properties will lead to new products with unique capabilities for the aerospace, automotive, medical and smart-clothing markets." (See also Bandgap technique speeds up graphene device dev't.)

Wet-spinning method
Shortly after arriving at Rice in 2000, Pasquali began studying CNT wet-spinning methods with the late Richard Smalley, a nanotechnology pioneer and the namesake of Rice's Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. In 2003, two years before his untimely death, Smalley worked with Pasquali and colleagues to create the first pure nanotube fibres. The work established an industrially relevant wet-spinning process for nanotubes that was analogous to the methods used to create high-performance aramid fibres—like Teijin's Twaron—which are used in bulletproof vests and other products. But the process needed to be refined. The fibres weren't very strong or conductive, due partly to gaps and misalignment of the millions of nanotubes inside them.

Pasquali said other labs had found that the strength and conductivity of spun fibres could also be improved if the starting material—the clumps of raw nanotubes—contained long nanotubes with few atomic defects. In 2010, Pasquali and Talmon began experimenting with nanotubes from different suppliers and working with AFRL scientists to measure the precise electrical and thermal properties of the improved fibres. (See also Nanotubes to push future of touchscreen tech.)

 carbon nanotube fibre

Figure 2: This light bulb is powered and held in place by two thin strands of carbon nanotube fibres that look and feel like textile thread. The nanotube fibres conduct heat and electricity as well as metal wires but are stronger and more flexible.

The fibres reported have about 10 times the tensile strength and electrical and thermal conductivity of the best previously reported wet-spun CNT fibres, Pasquali said. The specific electrical conductivity of the new fibres is on par with copper, gold and aluminium wires, but the new material has advantages over metal wires.

For example, one application where high strength and electrical conductivity could prove useful would be in data and low-power applications, Pasquali said.

"Metal wires will break in rollers and other production machinery if they are too thin," he said. "In many cases, people use metal wires that are far thicker than required for the electrical needs, simply because it's not feasible to produce a thinner wire. Data cables are a particularly good example of this." (See also IBM scientists demo 10,000 transistors in 1 chip.)

Watch the video below to know more about the carbon nanotube fibres from Rice University.

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