In August, the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) found a pathway to a major scientific breakthrough – and that pathway is made of extremely small tubes.
Researchers at the UTD NanoTech Institute, in conjunction with an Australian national laboratory (CSIRO), found a quick and easy way to weave
nanotube sheets out of freestanding carbon nanotubules, paving the way for commercial applications.
A paper published Aug. 19 in the journal Science announced the findings.
Nanotubules are cylindrical molecules of carbon 1/5,000th the diameter of a human hair. They are extremely strong and sturdy for their weight – an acre-size one-nanotube-thick sheet would weigh only four ounces. They are also flexible and conduct electricity and heat.
The sheets are made from chemically-grown
forests of nested nanotubules standing on end which, when pulled to one side, rotate 90 degrees and interlock with one another to form a sort of interwoven fabric. This
self-constructing tendency was discovered, after much experimentation, by pulling on the nanotubes with a Post-It note.
We were working in the lab, so we tried lots of things. The idea was generated from experiments, said Mei Zhang, researcher and first author of the paper.
The Post-It, we don’t actually use that anymore, Zhang said, laughing.
Suggested applications for the nanotube sheets are nearly endless. Among the possibilities are flexible light-emitting displays, bullet-resistant clothing, transparent heating elements embedded in windows, scientific sensors, solar cells, platforms for tissue growth, artificial muscles – even lightweight solar sails for space travel.
UTD is also pursuing development of these technologies as well, under a program led by Anvar Zakhidov. UTD researchers are investigating, fabricating in proof-of-concept form, and patenting a number of possible applications.
The discoveries follow huge efforts of research in nanotechnology at many institutions. In UTD’s case, they directly follow work in weaving nanotubules into fibers, similar to spinning wool into yarn.
The breakthroughs have brought considerable notoriety – and press – to UTD and its NanoTech Institute, and to the researchers responsible for the discoveries. Yet they credit each other and the research environment to their success.
This advance that we made is a consequence of a team effort of many people in the NanoTech Institute who have extraordinary technical and scientific abilities, Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the NanoTech Institute.
(They) are the type of researchers who, if I ask them for the difficult, they give it to me in the afternoon. If I ask them to do the impossible, they give it to me the next day.
Totally nanotubular — The UTD Mercury