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Rice University Cooks Up Nanotube Stew

Rice University researchers develop a new method for bulk processing carbon nanotubes.

Researchers at Rice University have announced the discovery of a new breakthrough method for producing carbon nanotubes in bulk fluids.  Rice’s new nanotube “stew” could spur the inexpensive mass production of carbon nanotube-based products, much like the plastics industry employed bulk loads of melted polymers as a cheap base for making everything from medical equipment to polyester shirts to plastic bags, and countless other things in between.

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Rice’s nanotube research was sponsored in party by U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy.  Aside from their military application, carbon nanotubes have a practically unlimited potential for sustainable civilian products because of their strength, light weight, and electrical conductivity among other properties. Lightweight nanomaterials could boost the gas mileage in cars and airplanes, make thinner and more flexible solar cells, increase the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries (in combination with another new high tech material, graphene), and be used in artificial photosynthesis to generate hydrogen fuel.

Rice University and the Nanotube Stew

Rice’s breakthrough is based on conventional bulk fluid industry processes, methodically adapted over a nine-year period.  In 2003, Rice researchers discovered that pure nanotubes can be dissolved in a strong acidic solvent to form liquid crystals that line up like a package of spaghetti, which can be spun into fibers.  Then followed years of examining the behavior of nanotubes in different acids, until the team finally settled on chlorsulfonic acid as the key.

The Next Step for Nanotube Production

By discovering a commercially viable fluid-based production method, Rice has brought the world one step closer to a carbon nanotube future that could be even more pervasive (and hopefully more sustainable) than plastic.  Another big step in that direction still awaits a solution, and that is a bulk process for manufacturing a single kind of nanotube per batch, rather than a “stew” of different types.

Image: Velo Steve on flickr.com.

 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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