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Scientists at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) NanoTech Institute have achieved a major technological breakthrough by spinning carbon nanotube yarns that are strong, extremely flexible and are both electrically and thermally conducting.
Apart from the impact that this could yield for the structural composites industry, the researchers add that the futuristic yarns could also result in “smart” clothing that stores electricity, provides ballistic protection and adjusts temperature and porosity to provide greater comfort.
The breakthrough, made possible by downsizing ancient technology used for wool and cotton spinning to the nanoscale, resulted from an unusual collaboration involving UTD nanotechnologists Dr. Mei Zhang and Dr. Ray H. Baughman and a noted expert in wool spinning, Dr. Ken Atkinson of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian national laboratory.
Potential commercial opportunities arising from the discovery will be enhanced by the hundred-fold lower cost of the spun multi-walled nanotubes compared with the single-walled nanotubes that are more commonly studied, according to Baughman, the article’s corresponding author and Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry and director of the UTD NanoTech Institute. The latter are a single cylinder made of graphite, while the multi-walled nanotubes contain a concentric array of such cylinders, which look like the rings of a tree trunk when viewed in cross section.
UTD and CSIRO have filed a patent application (with more than 200 claims) to protect the carbon nanotube spinning technology and its extension to other semi-conducting, metallic and superconducting nanofibres and nanoribbons. This pending patent provides invention embodiments for applications that include artificial muscles, super-capacitors, antiballistic vests, thermal heat pipes, among many other potential applications.
“We believe that our nanotube yarns can be commercialized for important applications in less than five years, and a number of companies large and small are committed to help make this happen,” said Baughman. “Working together with CSIRO, companies and U.S. government laboratories, we are forging ahead to upscale the process and optimize properties of the materials for the initially targeted applications. The interesting fundamental chemistry and physics, such as giant stretch-induced densification and associated electrical and thermal transport property changes, complements the exciting application possibilities of these yarns.”
The researchers highlighted a number of various applications for the new yarns which include structural composites that are strong, tough and able to reduce mechanical vibrations; protective clothing that provides antiballistic and static-discharge protection, as well as radio and microwave frequency absorption and heat pipes that provide both structural reinforcement and heat dissipation.
The UTD-CSIRO research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the United States Department of Defense, the Texas Advanced Technology Program, the Robert A. Welch Foundation and the Strategic Partnership for Research in Nanotechnology, or SPRING.
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