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Ribbons, Sheets and the Nanofuture
Jamais Cascio, 19 Aug 05

rolloutthenano.jpgThis is likely the biggest technological breakthrough of the year, arguably even of the decade.

A team of researcher from the University of Texas, Dallas, and Australia's CSIRO has come up with a way to make strong, stable macroscale sheets and ribbons of multiwall nanotubes at a rate of seven meters per minute. These ribbons and sheets, moreover, already display -- without optimization of the process -- important electronic and physical properties, making them suitable for use in an enormous variety of settings, including artificial muscles, transparent antennas, video displays and solar cells -- and many, many more. The breakthrough was announced in the latest edition of Science. As usual, the article itself is behind a subscriber-only wall, but the abstract and supplementary information are available with a free site registration. The press release from UTD (carried by Eurekalert) provides abundant information, however; an article in the UK Guardian gives additional detail.

If you've followed the developments of macro-scale materials made with nanotubes, you'll understand just how enormous a development this is. Previous "sheets" were small and took hours to produce via a liquid-assembly process. This technique allows a meter-long, five centimeter-wide ribbon to be created in seconds. The Science supplemental material page has a link to a video of this in action -- the image above right is a screencap from that video -- and the speed at which the carbon nanotube ribbon is produced is just amazing.

But as startling as the production speed is, it pales in comparison to the material's properties. To start with, the measured gravimetric strength of the nanoribbons -- again, this is the unoptimized version -- already exceeds steel and carbon fiber materials such as Kevlar. Moreover:

The nanotube sheets can be made so thin that a square kilometer of solar sail would weigh only 30 kilograms. While sheets normally have much lower strength than fibers or yarns, the strength of the nanotube sheets in the nanotube alignment direction already approaches the highest reported values for polymer-free nanotube yarns.

The nanotube sheets combine high transparency with high electronic conductivity, are highly flexible and provide giant gravimetric surface areas, which has enabled the team to demonstrate their use as electrodes for bright organic light emitting diodes for displays and as solar cells for light harvesting. Electrodes that can be reversibly deformed over 100 percent without losing electrical conductivity are needed for high stroke artificial muscles, and the Science article describes a simple method that makes this possible for the nanotube sheets.

The solar cell aspect is particularly interesting: imagine being able to roll out flexible solar materials nearly as easily as pulling tape from a roll. And it just gets better:

The use of the nanotube sheets as planar incandescent sources of highly polarized infrared and visible radiation is also reported in the Science article. Since the nanotube sheets strongly absorb microwave radiation, which causes localized heating, the scientists were able to utilize a kitchen microwave oven to weld together plexiglas plates to make a window. Neither the electrical conductivity of the nanotube sheets nor their transparency was affected by the welding process -- which suggests a novel way to imbed these sheets as transparent heating elements and antennas for car windows. The nanotube sheets generate surprisingly low electronic noise and have an exceptionally low dependence of electronic conductivity on temperature. That suggests their possible application as high-quality sensors - which is a very active area of nanotube research.

The nanotube sheets appear to support the healthy growth of cells, suggesting their possible use as scaffolds for tissue growth. Other immediately apparent applications include:

...supercapacitors, batteries, fuel cells and thermal-energy-harvesting cells exploiting giant-surface-area nanotube sheet electrodes; light sources, displays, and X-ray sources that use the nanotube sheets as high-intensity sources of field-emitted electrons; and heat pipes for electronic equipment that exploit the high thermal conductivity of nanotubes. Multifunctional applications like nanotube sheets that simultaneously store energy and provide structural reinforcement for a side panel of an electrically powered vehicle also are promising

Furthermore, this breakthrough puts us enormously closer to the ability to build an Earth-to-orbit elevator. The strength of this ribbon is not yet sufficient for such a purpose, but the required level of strength is no longer a distant prospect.

Although the process is already close to commercial speed and cost, important questions remain to be studied. How scalable is the process -- could nanosheets many meters (or kilometers) across really be produced? More importantly, how stable are the materials over the long-haul? What would cause them to break down? And when they do degrade, how small are the resulting particles? Although solid research into the risks of nanotubes remains to be done, early signs are that some configurations, under some conditions, could be hazardous. If nanotubes are shown to have broader health risks than currently thought, how readily would these nanoribbons degrade into toxic particles?

These questions remain to be answered, and while caution about nanotube toxicity remains warranted, the variety of applications of these nanoribbons and sheets -- in medicine, in energy, in material production and ultra-low-power electronics -- suggests we look very hard at ways for any risks to be mitigated, rather than simply discarding the technology.

This is a no-kidding technological paradigm shift in the making.

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Wow! I had expected another few years of small, incremental improvements before reaching this point. This is a real surprise.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 19 Aug 05

nice entry. was looking for more detailed information on this breakthrough. thanks.

Posted by: csven on 19 Aug 05

This is really pretty exciting stuff. Suddenly materials science is so... cool. ☺

Posted by: Patrick Hall on 19 Aug 05

Perhaps this event is similar to the invention of plastic. Years after the invention, millions of applications, yet now (over)used so much that it causes environmental problems.

Thanks Worldchanging for the post, and to this unfolding drama.

Posted by: Erik Ehlert on 19 Aug 05

Perhaps this event is similar to the invention of plastic.

I've been thinking of it as being similar to when Henry Bessemer perfected the process to make steel. Plastic is important, true, but the modern age was built with steel.

Posted by: Brian on 19 Aug 05

Well it IS a plastic. This is a tremendous breakthrough, I hope its put into commercial use as soon as possible, will change the world we live in.

Posted by: Nic on 19 Aug 05

This is a great breakthrough but... we gotta do the toxicity studies stat. Nanocarbon is very powerful but could be just as dangerous as it is powerful in the human environment.

Posted by: gmoke on 19 Aug 05

There's always someone who sounds authoritarian and cautiously protective of society...

Nanotubes have been produced in every carbon arc since the first searchlight was built. Every stage and theater has had nanotubes floating throughout the air for everyone to breath. Every industrial application using carbon arcing produces nanotubes. The problem wasn't production, it was extracting them from the surrounding soot.

Posted by: Walter Halverson on 19 Aug 05

This is amazing. The diamond age is upon us!

THis will usher in a new wave of tech that could be best lkened to the ability of fabricating electronics, steel, etc. This development is very very big, and wwill see several more dazzling results before 2007, sealing the US as the superpower that controls it.

Think downloading CD's will be big news in 10 years? You havent seen a DRM battle until techie geeks get busted for downloading the latest pentium chip released on encrypted next gen bit torrent networks.

Posted by: vegasbright on 20 Aug 05

This is amazing. The diamond age is upon us!

THis will usher in a new wave of tech that could be best lkened to the ability of fabricating electronics, steel, etc. This development is very very big, and wwill see several more dazzling results before 2007, sealing the US as the superpower that controls it.

Think downloading CD's will be big news in 10 years? You havent seen a DRM battle until techie geeks get busted for downloading the latest pentium chip released on encrypted next gen bit torrent networks.

Posted by: vegasbright on 20 Aug 05

Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say Stephenson's Diamond Age is upon us since this stuff isn't made with assemblers but, I do agree with Jamais' assessment that it is the breakthrough of the decade. The number of applications for this stuff is staggering.

And be assured Rice University's CBEN is carrying studies of the safety and toxicity of cabon nanotubes (And other nanotubes not so well known.). Walter makes a good point: carbon nanotubes have been floating around our environment for a very long time--still a study couldn't hurt.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 20 Aug 05

Dumb question - can nanotubes and nanosheets fit into a "cradle-to-cradle" material cycling economy? What can be done with them when their useful life is over?

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Aug 05

Not a dumb question at all, David. Unfortunately, the answser is a lame, "it depends."

In principle, carbon nanotube-based materials should be easily recycled into the base feedstock for more carbon nanotubes. A cradle-to-cradle production economy could be accelerated by the use of nanotube sheets and struts as manufacturing material. However, it's unclear whether this system would make that any easier than any other fabrication process.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Aug 05

I have been following the evolution of nanotube fabrication for some time, and I wholeheartedly agree with everyone: this is HUGE. The comments about reusability plugged me into another question that has not occurred to me before, however. I have not encountered any suggestions or even speculation about production of nanotubes by a method analogous to stereolithography. Now that would be a marriage that would truly change the world.

Posted by: Ned Johnson on 20 Aug 05

One of my first thoughts was "Wow! Now we've got a dependable industrial process for manufacturing a space elevator."

That's not all, of course - I was delighted to see the comment on its biomedical potential:
"The nanotube sheets appear to support the healthy growth of cells, suggesting their possible use as scaffolds for tissue growth." And that, if the process can be publicised and licensed as widely as possible, may turn out to be the most significant of all.

I for one would be interested in finding out the sort of tissue it supports. A scaffolding of nanotubes built over a mess of shattered bone? That should work. A scaffolding of nanotubes placed in bone killed by solar flares? Now we're talking space exploration big time.

Posted by: Wesley Parish on 21 Aug 05

Kevlar is not a carbon fiber. Kevlar is a trademark owned by DuPont for aramid fiber.

Posted by: Larry on 21 Aug 05

This is cool stuff but every inch of this stuff should be registered like a lethal weapon and accounted for.

In the artical, they concerned themselves with the problems of degraded nano particulate floating around and causing problems. Sure nano dust could cause people to have more asthma or worse, but on the macro scale the potential for problems are apparant too...

One of the things that concerns me is huge almost invisible ribbons or sails of this stuff floating around in our oceans or in our atmosphere trapping and killing fish, whales, birds, and 747's.

Have you walked along the coast of any ocean beach lately? You cannot walk for 3 seconds near the high tide line without finding near indistructable plastic fishing nets or some other human waste. We make our bed we sleep in it.

Posted by: anon on 21 Aug 05

I was wondering, can the nanotubes be designed to redirect radiation? Meaning, can it redirect say a comsic ray from this side to that direction? I was thinking that if that was a possible, a layer of these in a space suit would help our astronauts and cosmonauts, and anyone else who goes into space, with the additional layer placed around a ship traveling some place out side of our protection.

Posted by: David on 21 Aug 05

Most probably recycling of carbon nanotube would be simply a matter of heat. Diamonds, as tough as they are, as in this quote:
"In 1694-5, the Academicians, Averani and Targioni, at the instigation of the Grand Duke Cosmos III of Tuscany, conducted research, on the combustibility of diamond at the "Accademia del Cimento" of Florence. Diamonds were exposed to the intense heat of a fierce charcoal fire or were placed in the focus of a large burning-glass. A stone so treated did not fuse but gradually decreased in size and finally disappeared, leaving behind no appreciable amount of residue."

Since the diamond was presumably being converted to gas, it seems to me that a method of capturing and purifying the superheated gas from incinerated nanotube would be a natural first step in manufacturing more of the same. Ideally, the whole factory is run by solar panels of the same manufacture.

Posted by: Tom Buckner on 21 Aug 05

This is HISTORY. Our energy and transportation future will be SIGNIFICANTLY changed with this development. Space Tethers, may be only a few years away.

Posted by: bob winmill on 21 Aug 05

One of our most pressing needs is a means of moving great quantities of electrical energy from remote areas where it is produced to cities where it is used. Carbon nanotube transmission lines would be at least an order of magnitude better for this than any material we can presently manufacture.

Nobel Prise winning chemist Rick Smalley states:
"Let’s talk first about transmission. The angle I’ve been devoting my efforts to is a new kind of conducting cable made of what are called armchair quantum wires: single-walled carbon nanotubes [buckytubes] with a particular structure. These are quantum wave guides for electrons.

I am confident over time we will be able to find new ways of spinning continuous cables using such technology. This approach could yield cables with the conductivity of copper but with a strength greater than steel at one-sixth the weight.

Carbon nanotubes are capable of handling incredible levels of electrical current, [b]as much as a billion amps per square centimeter.[/b] That’s compared with conventional cabling material, which can carry only a couple thousand amps per square centimeter.

In storage, our hope is to develop new batteries. The chemistry of batteries needs to be improved at the nano level and brought up to the macro level. The best candidates include buckytubes in lithium ion batteries, flow cells, and hydrogen fuel cells."

Posted by: Timetrvlr on 21 Aug 05

Carbon nanotubes may be present in any industry using carbon arcing in the current setting, but that doesn't mean that such a fact proves them harmless.

Carbon Arc spotlights and equipment produce soot, and carbon soot has been proven to increase the likeliness of cancer, both of a lung and skin variety. Any kind of fiber or tube or other structure that our bodies are not designed or adapted to cope with, when introduced into our biology, can and likely will cause complications unless dealt with or controlled.

I can very easily see semi-degraded nanotubules having much the same effect as asbestos fibers in the lungs; injury, scarring, and ultimately formation of cancerous growths. Or have the same effect as fiberglass on the skin after long exposure: a dreadful irritant that can lead to long term rash and easy infection. A full, comprehensive and cautious health study needs to be conducted in the long term before we make these our latest "wonder material" to be overexploited without understanding.

Progress is good, but it must be tempered with prudence, or we will become our own worst enemy.

Posted by: Vturbo on 21 Aug 05

so this is the stuff the space elevator would travel on?

Posted by: guano on 21 Aug 05

Someone who knows more about this might be able to tell me if this is a valid idea. Considering these nanotubes are made of carbon, and considering we have a excess of carbon in our athmosphere from wide spread use of oil/coal. I suggest we develop a way to filter the carbon out of the atmosphere and compress it into a nano-tube. Given a cost efficient way to do this, I belive there should be reasearch into this idea.

Posted by: Robert on 21 Aug 05

It would be terrible if torn fragments of this stuff wind up polluting our oceans, beaches and the digestive tracts of animals. It would be terrible if this stuff turns out to be the next asbestos, CFC or dioxin.

But I think some confidence is needed here. Asbestos happened to us. Dioxin happened to us. Every day we see seabirds choked with six-pack rings and fish trapped in plastic bags. We are now dealing with the ozone depletion due to CFCs. We are gaining experience with these problems. We have started to solve many of them. It's expensive but we do learn something these catastrophes. I think these experiences have given us the caution needed to head off future disasters involving nanomaterials.

I completely agree that safety and environmental impact should be assessed and studied but let's make certain that these studies offer real solutions to containing or preventing risks and not let this degenerate into a fearful ban based on lack of knowledge.

I say this because bans contain real risks too. Bans often result in the illegal sale, manufacture and use of chemicals and materials in countries where the laws are lax. They often just export the problem to poor people who have fewer ways to protect themselves.

It would be shame if a ban on nanotube films simply ships the problem to Nigeria or China or Brazil.

If the costs outweigh the benefits and there is no cheap way to reduce or prevent risks, fine; let's look for safer alternatives. But banning outright is just laziness that ultimately fails.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 21 Aug 05

Speaking of extracting carbon from the atmosphere to make nanotubes, I've been wondering for a few years if that's possible. Maybe the space elevator could be built by first building nanobots that can extract carbon from the atmosphere and assemble the atoms onto an existing nanotube strand, and then have them build the elevator an atom at a time. Of course, it's maybe not the most efficient method for the present time, but I wonder if it's possible to build such a bot?

Posted by: Shawn Rutledge on 21 Aug 05

I don't think it's very likely that we'll soon find a method to produce nanotubes from carbon found in the atmosphere, but I think we will soon be producing carbon nanotubes (CNTs) from gases such as CO _before_ those gases enter the atmosphere. It is well-established that CNTs can be by a process called CO disproportionation, and power companies - which have an unwanted excess of this greenhouse gas - are under increasing pressure to be more environmentally friendly. So, if a power company can find a way to incorporate CNT production into their energy production process, not only would they be able to reduce their CO emissions, but they would have a useful, marketable product in the end. This would be a win-win situation from a business standpoint, and I guarantee research in this area is currently underway.

Posted by: Erik on 22 Aug 05

I'm completely and utterly in favor of 'looking at the
underside first,' but we're talking INDESTRUCTIBLE,
Oh, and did I mention that they SEQUESTER CARBON?
This stuff hits so many Bright Green targets that
it's kinda ridiculous!

You know how weird this stuff is? This is surreal.
If a friendly space alien came out of a saucer
with a couple armfulls of this nanoribbon stuff and said,
"Klaatu barada nikto, we brought this to solve
your planet's Greenhouse problem," we'd be, like,
pinching the selvage and patting our wallets
and saying, "uh, yeah, that certainly oughta do it, how much
do you want?"

I'm totally aware that technology bites back,
and this stuff is gonna bite back, too, but every
once in a while technology bites FORWARD.
It's just does, it's the nature of the phenomenon, and
this looks like one of those moments. So
we ought to be properly interested.

Knit up the Cafe Press nanotube T-shirt
and let's try it on! If it's a hairshirt of asbestos
and fiberglass, we'll learn soon enough.
But what if it's cashmere-and-capilene?
Every once in a while, you've got to
take YES for an answer. We can't very well
stay where we are. The status quo's unsustainable.

How do we get some? I want some.
I'm thinking maybe a hatband.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 22 Aug 05

Forgive my skepticism, but that video looks fake. That apparatus can't possibly be producing the ribbon as the article implies. No power connection, uneven hand pulling with no impact on the output.... I think there is a spool of mylar under the black box.

Posted by: ken on 22 Aug 05

No offence, but the makers of Kevlar are history, bankrupt, finito. Seems it has a rather short shelf life; after a while, it doesn't stop bullets anymore....

Posted by: Clyon on 22 Aug 05

Yeah, I'm a little skeptical. The cost is still very high I'm sure, as they are using expensive catalytic CVD to grow the tubes in the first place. This cost will come down eventually though, especially when the capital investment is simply piled onto these scientists.

Posted by: John on 22 Aug 05

I was wondering, perhaps in vain, could this technology be used to dissipate or rather "vent off" the heat that is building on our planet due to greenhouse gases? Can these sheets be utilized in a manner that would protect/repair our environment and perhaps slow down the greenhouse effect until mankind as a whole addresses the issues of global warming? The medicinal aspects are phenominal, is it plausable to think that stem cells and buckytubes could be used together to create completely compatable organs for transplants?

Posted by: ElDavo on 22 Aug 05

There is the obvious reduction in greenhouse gases: cars. If a car were made to weigh 1000 pounds or so, the motor to keep it moving at 70 miles per hour would be much smaller than current ones, thus requiring less gasoline and producing lesss emmisions. Not to mention applications in batteries and ultra lightweight and efficient solar cells. Cars would become primarily sun powered if everyone went gung ho and decided to give up their gasoline powered autos.

Posted by: Will on 23 Aug 05

You can also get through to the full research paper without registering (for about two weeks) by clicking on the link available from this story, thanks to our partners at Science:

Posted by: Alan Boyle on 23 Aug 05

Timetrvlr mentioned some interesting details about its electrical conductivity; and I thought of the Space Elevator immediately.

What sort of power generation would result from a geostationary-high-long tower running through the Van Allens? And the stratosphere, etc?

And what about using a section of the space elevator, suitably insulated of course, to transmit solar power from geostationary orbit to the SE climbers, and also into the local grid? Put a SE terminal next to Christmas Island and run the power grid connection into the trans-Pacific cable repeaters ...

Posted by: Wesley Parish on 24 Aug 05

I've love to know approximately what % efficiency this material has when converting sunlight to electricity?. Since it is semi-transparent, I assume that the efficiency will increase if multiple layers are used. Commercial solar panels only go up to about 12% efficiency. Does anyone know how high this stuff will go?

Posted by: Peter on 24 Aug 05

hey guys---you know that we are capable of producing a space elevator right now---- right?
In the tensile strength equation--the tensile strength 100 GPA that you guys are accustomed to is really the tensile strength necessary to build an elevator from the SURFACE of the planet to orbit---if you built a tower a few kilometers and then attach the cable you can reduce the tensile strength necessary by a great deal (little difference in surface distance and you get large reduction in necessary tensile strength)---before this material it seemed like a pretty big ass tower (100km +) but now it's more like 25km + ( this height is well within the capability of steel)---if you build a tower and then attach the cable you can have it within current tensile strength (given the weight to strength ratio this material has).

I don't know how expensive that would be--probably another 20+ billion....but if your pretty impatient to build an elevator (as I am)--you might want to press for it...

besides..individual CNT strength is 65 GPa--well below the 100 GPa needed---therefore---I think we should build the tower and get started....then we could build solar satellites cheaply in space---initiate cheap fusion reactions with these high--concentrated beams---and not be so vulnerable to oil (and if you have not seen the numbers---we are pretty much running into an oil crisis here---cuz global demand is outpacing supply)

let's invest some oil investment into buildin the space elevator so we can ensure the future of mankind (7 billion people lacking energy is not a pretty picture)

Posted by: tib on 1 Sep 05

tib we still need efficient climbers that can convert laser light into forward motion. That's still a fairly big hurdle to jump over.

Posted by: Chris on 28 Oct 05

tib - wouldn't the weakest and most vulnerable point of the space elevator be the connection of the cable or ribbon to the earth? You could not simply connect one of these ribbons to a 25km-high steel tower with a friggin carabiner. Not only would the ribbon need to be able to support its own weight and the amount of force generated by the anchor spinning around in space, but the steel and the connection between steel and earth and steel and ribbon would also need to be able to sustain a fair amount of force. You have actual numbers associated with these ideas, so I assume you've already taken into account these necessities...

But on a side note, I, like our friend Peter above, would also like to know what the potential efficiency would be for CNT solar panels. If anyone can find some numbers on this, please email me ( I could swear I remember reading 50% somewhere, but that's gotta be too good to be true...


Posted by: PS on 4 Nov 05



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