Carbon nanotubes aerogel could improve robotic surgery

A new form of super-sensitive carbon could improve robotic surgery, detect pollutants and store energy more efficiently, according to its inventors.

Researchers from the University of Central Florida in the US have developed an aerogel — the lightest form a solid substance can take — based on carbon nanotubes.

Aerogels are made by replacing the liquid component of a gel with a gas to create an extremely low-density solid, sometimes nicknamed ’frozen smoke’.

Associate professor Lei Zhai and post-doctoral associate Jianhua Zou replaced the silica used in traditional aerogels with carbon nanotubes.

Because of its low density, the multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) aerogel can be used to detect and track tiny changes in pressure.

Strips of the substance could be used in robotic fingers and hands to make them very sensitive and give them the ability to distinguish between holding a power saw or a scalpel — a distinction necessary for use in surgery.

Because the nanotubes have a large surface area, great amounts of energy could be stored in the aerogel. This means it could be used to increase the capacity of lithium batteries or supercapacitors used to store electricity.

Combining the larger surface area and improved electrical conductivity is also important in developing sensors that can detect toxins capable of invading the food or water supply.

The same technique can be used to develop equipment capable of detecting even trace amounts of explosives.

‘This has many potential applications and could really open up new areas to explore that we haven’t even imagined yet,’ said Zhai.

A report detailing Zhai’s work appears in the journal ACS Nano.