Scientists at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) NanoTech Institute, along with an Australian collaborator claim to have achieved a technological breakthrough by spinning multi-walled carbon nanotube yarns that are strong, tough and extremely flexible, and are both electrically and thermally conducting.
Among other things, the futuristic yarns could result in “smart” clothing that stores electricity, provides ballistic protection and adjusts temperature and porosity to provide greater comfort.
The breakthrough, made possible by, in effect, downsizing ancient technology used for wool and cotton spinning to the nanoscale, resulted from a 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 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 semiconducting, metallic and superconducting nanofibres and nanoribbons.
This pending patent provides invention embodiments for applications that include artificial muscles, supercapacitors, antiballistic vests, thermal heat pipes, electronic textiles, sensors, electron field emitters, ultra-high intensity lamps and three-dimensional micro-fluidic circuits for chemical laboratories that are the size of a computer chip.
“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 US government laboratories, we are forging ahead to upscale the process and optimise properties of the materials for the initially targeted applications.”
The UTD-CSIRO research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the US Department of Defense, the Texas Advanced Technology Program, the Robert A. Welch Foundation and the Strategic Partnership for Research in Nanotechnology, or SPRING.