Researchers have made a breakthrough in nanotube technology that is making the impossible seem probable.
This was done by developing a new ‘ultralong’ fibre made from carbon nanotubes. The chemical engineering team from Tsinghua University say that is stronger than anything seen before, and opens up a wide range of engineering possibilities and technological advances, such as space elevators.
The fibre is truly very strong and light, as the South China Morning Post reports, “1 cubic centimetre of the fibre would not break under the weight of more than 800 tonnes.” Adding that, “A tiny piece of cable would weigh just 1.6 grams.”
The researchers have now published their findings in the peer-reviewed Nature Nanotechnology, where they announce that, “Carbon Nanotube bundles, consisting of a large number of components with parallel alignment, exhibit a tensile strength of 80 gigapascals (GPa) (corresponding to an engineering tensile strength of 43 GPa), which is far higher than that of any other strong fibre.”
To put this into context, in 2005, NASA offered a $2 million prize for anyone able to produce a material with a tensile strength of only 7 GPa. The prize went unclaimed.
However, despite the nanotube cable invention, a space elevator is still years away due to the many challenges involved. These include transporting one end of the cable 22 km above Earth (the minimum required for geosynchronous orbit), the need for a very heavy space anchor (possibly a captured asteroid), and the need for the cable to survive the extreme temperatures of travelling through the atmosphere at the speed the planet is turning (11,000 kph).
However, having a cable that is strong enough to withstand the massive tension of a permanently orbiting platform is the first step.
But more important than space elevators is the fibre’s overall potential in other applications. As the team’s lead researcher, Wei Fei, a professor at Tsinghua University’s Department of Chemical Engineering, states, “This could be a game changer in many sectors,” foreseeing “great demand in many high-end fields such as sports equipment, ballistic armour, aeronautics, and astronautics.”
Giving an example, Wei went on to explain how carbon nanotubes could be used to manufacture a mechanical battery. This would take the form of a flywheel that could store energy in a rotating mass, lifted by magnetic levitation in a vacuum chamber. The lighter and stronger the material, the faster it spins.
“Using carbon nanotube flywheels, the mechanical battery would have 40 times the energy density of a lithium battery,” Wei notes. Explaining that, “It would mean a car like a Tesla Model S could travel for 16,000km in one charge – the distance from London to Sydney.”
Other potential uses include, “New weapon systems, such as rail guns and laser cannons, which require high performance power storage and supply systems. This technology offers a possible solution.”
While we are a long way off building a space elevator, carbon nanotube flywheels, or laser cannons, the fact that these ideas are being said in the same sentence as nanotubes says so much about the power and strength of this technology.
Fortunately, there are thousands of applications for shorter nanotubes, many of which require lengths of only 5-10 cm. These shorter tubes are much easier to manufacture, yet still maintain superb strength and lightness. This makes them an ideal raw material that is already being used in profit-making products.
For example, Team Trade, a company that has supplied raw materials for the manufacture of rubber, plastics, construction, and electronics since 2004, has developed a single-walled carbon nanotube technique for use as an ingredient in car tyres.
By using nanotechnology, the company will be able to help its customers make lighter and stronger tyres. This will make them more durable as well as lowering fuel consumption.
While the manufacture of car tyres is less glamorous than building a space elevator, it does prove that nanotube technology has a profitable use in today’s business world.
Team Trade is also developing a variety of nanotube products to solve other manufacturing challenges. Some of these products could only have been dreamed of just a few years ago.
As James Nordblom, a retired chemist from the University of Portland, notes on the possibilities of nanotubes, “If we can dream it, we can make it real. I truly believe that. I'm 73 and have already lived to see the impossible several times already. I just wish Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke could see this unfold. They dreamed.”
It seems that when it comes to carbon nanotubes, dreams do come true.
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