ARCHIVED - Building the Perfect Hockey Stick or Aircraft -- Carbon Nanotubes
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July 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario
|Model of a single-walled carbon nanotube|
Carbon nanotubes are the world's ultimate material. They are about 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight. They are also the best conductors of heat and of electricity known to science. All of these qualities mean that nanotubes are very much in demand. There's only one problem: only one carbon atom thick, single-walled carbon nanotubes are notoriously difficult to manufacture in large quantities. Until now.
A joint team at the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences (NRC-SIMS) in Ottawa and at the Université de Sherbrooke is on track to commercialize a process ('patent-pending') to mass produce high-purity carbon nanotubes. It's a move that they believe could revolutionize the use of this high-tech material in products ranging from hockey sticks to fighter jets.
Carbon nanotubes represent one of the first commercial applications of the nanotechnology revolution, a movement based on engineering at the level of individual atoms. For example, one nanometre, a standard unit of measurement in the realm of nanotechnology, is about 1-80,000th the width of a human hair. Single-walled carbon nanotubes are single, elegant sheets of carbon, or graphene, rolled on themselves. Their crystalline structure makes them far stronger and less brittle than carbon fibre, which is currently used for making strong and ultra-light bicycle seat posts, ski poles and aircraft parts. The same materials made with carbon nanotubes represent a major leap in technology and performance.
The team's goal of commercializing their groundbreaking research received two thumbs up from a group of distinguished business and science leaders in the recent NRC Business Case Challenge 2005.
For the past decade scientists and companies around the world have struggled to capitalize on carbon nanotubes' strengths.
"People know about the fantastic properties of this material. The issue has always been getting enough of it, and at the necessary quality and price," says Dr. Orson Bourne, a Business Development Officer with NRC-SIMS. Presently, global production of carbon nanotubes is only 300 kilograms a year and it sells at up to $600 a gram, putting it a close second behind another carbon product, diamonds.
Now, the NRC-SIMS/Sherbrooke team believes their carbon nanotube production process could soon double world production of high-quality carbon nanotubes, resulting in lower prices and new uses, especially in composite materials.
The team's process is the result of the combination of expertise in laser-assisted growth of carbon nanotubes and a well-known industrial process called inductively couple thermal plasma technology. The process involves vaporising carbon material in an intensely hot plasma (a form of matter in which electrons are separated from the nucleus), and then the carbon atoms are "knitted" together. The NRC-SIMS/Sherbrooke team has also finessed the chemistry to mix the tubes into resins for use in composite materials.
The first generation carbon nanotube formulations are currently undergoing standard strength validation testing at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research and composite integration at the NRC Industrial Materials Institute. Dr. Bourne adds, however, that the most immediate commercial test for their carbon nanotube composites won't be by scientists, but perhaps by sports enthusiasts. He notes that the "space age" has been replaced by the "sports age" when it comes to the market driving advanced materials.
The NRC-SIMS/Sherbrooke group plans to have a pilot carbon nanotube production facility operating in Sherbrooke by early next year, with plans to spin-off a company based on the technology at about the same time. The spin-off company will be differentiated from its competitors by the combination of its ability to produce the carbon nanotubes in larger quantities and to capture their properties by applying NRC-SIMS chemical know-how.
If all goes as planned, the NRC-SIMS/Sherbrooke team will be watching how their nanotubes perform in advanced composite materials integrated into a variety of consumer sports products.
Says Dr. Bourne: "If we can show that these carbon nanotube composites can perform as expected in these applications, then this will go a long way to validating their use in the really big market – aerospace."
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