Sep 01 2010
The year 1985 was known for many strange and wonderful things: Misfits of Science was on prime time television, William Gibson was working on the novel Count Zero, and a scientific discovery flew beneath the radar of just about everyone except people working in the field of materials science. Three scientists in two countries working together discovered a brand new allotrope of carbon, a molecule comprised of sixty carbon atoms arranged in a spherical shape. The molecule was named buckminsterfullerene after the visionary architect R. Buckminster Fuller, due to the molecule's resemblance to a geodesic dome. Buckyballs, as they came to be known, fired the imaginations of scientists and science fiction authors around the world once word got out. Eleven years later Sir Harold Kroto, Richard Smalley, and Robert Curl won a Nobel Prize in the field of chemistry for their discovery. A few years later the production of buckytubes, nanoscopic tubes of carbon based around a similar geometric pattern was perfected in the lab, and then research really took off.
For something so tiny they have some very unusual and, truth be told, amazing properties dependent upon what other atoms are trapped inside of them, how many layers of buckytubes are wrapped around one another, whether or not the buckytubes are twisted and in what direction, and other such details. The most commonly encountered buckytubes have a tensile strength that has been benchmarked around fifty times that of steel, and when under pressure give diamonds a run for their money for hardness. Depending on how they are synthesized carbon nanotubes can either conduct electricity as if they were a metal or a semiconductor (like silicon); if doped properly I bet you could tweak their electrical properties even more. Until recently, however, it wasn't feasible to manufacture them in bulk, let alone on a scale that the eye could see. That was, until a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas built a fabrication device that can create sheets of carbon nanotubes a few centimeters in width by a couple of meters in length.
The ribbons are constructed out of the multiwalled variant of carbon nanotubes and analysis shows that they are not only stable on the macro scale (i.e., visible to the naked eye and capable of being handled without anything more sophisticated than your hands) but evidence all of the predicted properties. The fabrication process hasn't been optimized yet but they can produce up to seven meters of ribbon at a time - there is a video linked off of this article which shows the fabber going... and going.. and going.. they've already begun to experiment with their test samples and gotten some interesting results. The ribbon seen in that video is as strong as kevlar yet conducts electricity well enough that you could probably make a paper-thin solar cell out of it. Folding, creasing, and welding sheets together with a microwave resulted in no signs of damage or compromise of electrical conductivity. Another article says that the feedstock they use contains pre-fabricated ultra-long buckytubes that are chemically grown rather than electrically produced, which would make all the difference between experimenting under laboratory conditions and going into mass production.
I'd love to get my hands on a sample of this material to put it through its paces. Starting with doing chin-ups with it to see just how much stress it can take...