ARCHIVED - Nanotubes to battle home-made explosives

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July 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

They're the ultimate high tech material: single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT) are about 100 times stronger than steel but just one-sixth the weight. And some day, their anti-ballistic potential may be used to protect Canadian soldiers, police officers and other security personnel against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — a favourite weapon of terrorists and guerrillas.

Today in Afghanistan, more Canadian casualties are caused by IEDs than gunfire. Although bomb disposal suits and helmets offer an effective defence once an IED is discovered, together they are extremely heavy, weighing more than 30 kilograms. "This is not something you can put on and walk around in for the rest of the day," says Dr. Benoit Simard of the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences (NRC-SIMS).

Dr. Benoit Simard holds a model single-walled carbon nanotube — one of the strongest materials ever created.
Dr. Benoit Simard holds a model single-walled carbon nanotube — one of the strongest materials ever created.

With funding from Canada's Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear, and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI), NRC is leading a three-year R&D program to incorporate SWCNT composites into personal protective equipment. "Nanotubes have the potential to enhance or replace anti-ballistic fabrics now used in vests and other protective gear, while reducing the total weight by 25 percent," says Dr. Simard.

The $4.5 million program, which begins in September 2008, links scientists in government, academia and industry, including three NRC institutes, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, McGill University, the University of British Columbia and Ottawa-based Med-Eng Systems, an Allen-Vanguard Company.

Dr. Simard's team, in collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS), has developed a process to produce SWCNT in bulk and filed a patent application on the process. "On the market, carbon nanotubes cost about $100-300 per gram, but NRC's production cost is significantly below this. The NRC-UdeS team can provide all of the single-walled carbon nanotubes in the quantity, purity and quality needed to execute this R&D project," says Dr. James Webb, director of NRC-SIMS.

The challenge now is to make useful materials such as fibres, sheets and composites from nanotubes, which typically measure from several microns to millimetres in length by just one nanometre in diameter. "From fibres, we can make yarn and from the yarn make textiles," adds Dr. Simard. "We can weave materials or make non-woven sheets."

The goal then is to intersperse nanotube-woven textiles into "aramid" fabrics such as Kevlar or high-density polyethylene, which are currently used in anti-ballistic suits, in order to reduce the total number of layers needed to achieve the same level of performance. "This will reduce the weight of a suit, so the people who wear it will be more mobile and comfortable, and able to wear the gear for longer durations," says Dr. Chris Kingston, one of the NRC-SIMS team members.

By the end of the three-year project, NRC and its partners expect to develop nanotube-based textile materials and test their mechanical and anti-ballistic properties. "Since nanotubes are one of the best thermal conducting materials, our vision for the future is to try adding new functionality, such as a cooling or water management system to remove sweat," says Dr. Simard. "If we can reduce the weight of protective suits, we can focus on making them even more comfortable and higher performing for the people wearing them."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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