Carbon nanotube applications go beyond military and aerospace use. So, what is a carbon nanotube? This remarkable material known for its strength, low weight and electrical conductivity has both ordinary and extraordinary possibilities.
What Is a Carbon Nanotube?
Carbon atoms linked together create the structure and unique properties of a carbon nanotube. Sheets of linked atoms roll up to form either single-walled tubes or multiple-walled structures where the tubes nest inside each other. Chemically, carbon nanotubes are similar to 2D sheets of graphene, according to Popular Mechanics. They are also known as cylindrical buckyballs or fullerenes, the best-known example of which is the soccer ball-shaped buckminsterfullerene, notes Scientific American.
Size wise, these materials are on the nanoscale, with walls of only a nanometer thick or 1 billionth of a meter. For reference, your fingernails grow about 1 nanometer per second. Carbon nanotubes possess the highest strength-to-weight ratio on the planet, even though their walls are thinner than the width of your DNA. Not only is the material strong, carbon nanotubes can stretch more than a million times the thickness of their walls and still retain strength, explains How Stuff Works.
Carbon nanotubes offer strength and flexibility without bulk, so it’s not surprising that researchers are looking for ways to use it in aircraft and construction materials and electrical systems.
Conductivity for Chips
In addition to strength and size, carbon nanotube applications also rely on the material’s unique electrical conductivity properties. Reporting on recent research news, Science Daily notes that carbon could replace metals as the dominant materials in manufactured goods.
MIT reports that the nanotubes could effectively replace silicon in microprocessors, allowing manufacturers to make much denser 3D chips with faster processing speeds. Replacing silicon transistors in chips could also reduce energy consumption. It could also help computer processing power double roughly every year or two, as predicted by Moore’s Law.
Regenerative medicine could use carbon nanotubes to support organ regeneration; its strength and flexibility could also help mend broken bones. Nanotube mesh helps support growth following seeding with stem cells by providing a framework that encourages cell division and spread. News Medical reports that seeding the tube surface with calcium attracts bone repair factors onto a surface more flexible than traditional titanium or ceramic implants.
Furthermore, the electrical conductivity in carbon nanotube implants can help repair nerve fibers. Researchers are using nanotube mesh to restore heart muscle contractility by bridging scar tissue, notes News Medical. The nanotubes could also work as implantable electrodes that interface between devices and the patient’s body. The Journal of Nanomaterials describes preliminary research looking at modifying carbon nanotubes as fibers to support stem cell therapy to correct inner ear hearing loss.
Wearing Your Battery Pack
Instead of carrying bulky batteries and chargers, you could charge your devices from the clothes on your back in the future. Science Daily describes how researchers are drawing out nanotubes into threads that can be woven alongside traditional textile products. Researchers and designers are exploring ways to combine the insulating and conductivity properties with carbon nanotube flexibility, to make clothing that adapts to heat and cold, or that contains embedded biosensors for monitoring health. In the future, it could even power a handheld device. A TechCrunch post on twistron, a coiled carbon nanotube yarn, describes how it can generate small amounts of electricity when stretched. Woven into a shirt, the researchers showed that simply by breathing in and out, the wearer could generate energy. In the future, your fashion statement could help keep you connected.
Greater interest in carbon nanotube applications for an ever-widening variety of products should continue to drive research into this fascinating material. Although scalability issues need to be addressed, carbon could indeed be the new black.