back to article Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on industrial scale

An international team of scientists has successfully found a way to spin tens of millions of carbon nanotubes into a flexible conductive thread that's a quarter of the thickness of human hair. "We finally have a nanotube fiber with properties that don't exist in any other material," said lead researcher Matteo Pasquali of Rice …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Marvellous

    "It looks like black cotton thread but behaves like both metal wires and strong carbon fibers."

    Thuggees will be delighted that the 21st century has something to offer their craft.

  2. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. Dave 32
      Mushroom

      Re: This will change things

      The real trick will be when we can go to 4D! ;-)

      Dave

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: This will change things

      >Goes to show going from 0 to 1 to 2 dimensions makes things more useful.

      ?

      Do read something Eadon, anything. Plato might be a good start.

      1. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    3. Pet Peeve
      Pint

      Re: This will change things

      Damn right it will change things. Besides possibly becoming a viable copper replacement, high-tensile strength materials means we're that much closer to a practical space elevator.

      The phrase "industrial scale" fills me with happiness. I want to see spools of this at Hobby Lobby PRONTO.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    I'll

    get my carbon nanotube coat, from M&S

  4. AdamSweetman
    Thumb Up

    Space tether time, go go space elevators!

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Last I read, it might, just might be possible to use nanotubes to construct a spave elevator. Would appreciate a link to the latest calculations/estimates though!

      Arthur C Clarke (Fountains of Paradise) credits Buckminster Fullerine with playing a hand in the space-elevator concept, so it's pleasing that the only materuial that might make them a reality bears his name.

      In the absence of a space elevator, headphone cables that don't fail would be nice.

    2. Franklin
      Thumb Down

      Someone downvoted space elevators? Must be a bloke from Virgin Galactic. A space elevator would drive a stake in the heart of their "get gazillionaires to pay a jillion dollars for a brief suborbital trip" business model...

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        Yeah but first you need the gazillionaires to actually finance the thing.

        A good example what "savings" are for btw, as opposed to paper money freshly exchanged against bonds at the central bank.

        Icon of what is nearest a tall-hat wearing space elevator baron shortly before he is taken down by antitrust for a natural space elevator monopoly. Which we can't have.

    3. Andy Farley

      And...

      We've got something to tether the shadow squares to.

      1. Tom_

        Alright...

        ...don't lose your head.

  5. Petrea Mitchell
    Go

    Woohoo!

    So how far does this move us along the path to a working space elevator?

    And on the textile side, what does one cut these threads with?

    1. Oninoshiko
      Boffin

      Re: Woohoo!

      probably any run-of-the-mill pair of scissors. They this fiber has incredible tensile strength, that says nothing about shear strength. I did try to look up shear strength numbers, but didn't find any (although I didn't look too hard).

    2. Denarius Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Woohoo!

      Space elevator might be nice idea, but, a conductor 40,000 KM long, going to an area on edge of charged particle belts and exposed to passing magnetic field bearing plasmas. What interactions could we get here ? Not to mention the charged areas in our atmosphere. Sprites are known to send jets 80km high, so I suspect electronic erosion at atmosphere end might be higher than expected.

      1. Graham Dawson

        Re: Woohoo!

        The voltage difference between each end will be rather impressive. You could probably prevent most of the issues you're thinking of by using it as a power source.

      2. sisk Silver badge

        Re: Woohoo!

        @Denarius - Those are probably minor problems compared to the problem of a material strong enough to build a space elevator in the first place. Maybe they can harvest all that energy to power the thing or something.

        I do have to admit though I just had a frightening mental image of what would happen if the tether for a space elevator got hit with a bolt of lightning powerful enough to vaporize a few millimeters of it.

      3. Pet Peeve
        Coat

        Re: Woohoo!

        Tethers as a power source in space has been explored, and the idea works. Turn a negative into a positive, you might say.

    3. cnapan
      Pint

      Re: Woohoo!

      "And on the textile side, what does one cut these threads with?"

      I'm sure someone's asking that about the space elevator too...

      (I don't want it all ending up in my back garden. The bulbs are starting to grow).

  6. Dazed and Confused Silver badge

    And for the next trick

    They just need to work out an energy efficient method to spin it directly out of CO2 and they'll be able to tackle two problems at once.

    Can't wait to see where this trick takes us.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Full circle

      Power the CO2 to nanotube conversion with shale gas. That would provide an overabundance of concentrated source material. The atmosphere is only 0.035% CO2 and the concentration step requires energy.

      1. Chemist
        Pint

        Re: Full circle

        "Power the CO2 to nanotube conversion with shale gas."

        Power it with what you like - get the CO2 from brewing - Igor, more BEER !

  7. Pondule

    Power transmission?

    More conductive than copper and stronger than steel; makes one wonder if we could string it up on our existing pylons instead of having to erect yet more of them to make a super-grid to cope with renewable energy's fluctuations.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Power transmission?

      IIRC overhead lines (especially transmission lines) use aluminum instead of copper. It's not as efficient but it's efficient enough while being MUCH cheaper.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Power transmission?

        Yep. Actually aluminum and steel. Steel core for strength, and Al outer braiding for electrical conduction.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          Holmes

          Re: Power transmission?

          Also doesn't get stolen by marauding bands of gypsies or hovering UFOs.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrical_resistivity_and_conductivity

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Power transmission?

            They'll destroy it anyway, on the basis that it might have copper in it.

            That said, I'm glad a lot of other people thought "Power transmission" as a first application if it can weather the outdoors

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Power transmission?

              Presumably it'd be easy enough to protect the cables from the elements by encasing them in a sheath?

              Conductive as copper, 10 times stronger than steel and probably significantly lighter than aluminium (anyone seen density figures?)... sounds ideal!

              I'm thinking BT might be interested too... as they seem to have decided not to bother running optical fibres beyond TC.

    2. Denarius Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Power transmission?

      And so thin that birds cut themselves on it. Lightening strike and it burns away. One also asks what is used to secure it to support arms to pylons ? Diamonds ? Anything else would be cut thru. One of Nivens or Pournelles stories mentioned the possibility of the local "lads" enjoying putting this stuff up cross alleys with messy and fatal results.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Power transmission?

        @Denarius - I suspect there's a slight difference in head-chopping-offability between Niven and Pournelle's single molecules and this bundled stuff...

      2. Jan 0

        @Denarius - "Penny for your thoughts?"

        Are you actually thinking about P K Dick? I dimly recall a story of his, where a ferry has it's superstructure sliced off slowly by a monomolecular filament.

        1. Return To Sender
          Mushroom

          Re: @Denarius - "Penny for your thoughts?"

          @Jan 0

          Ferries? Pah, kid's stuff. Niven has his slicing huge swathes of countryside and cities, IIRC. Long time since I've read the Ringworld books, though.

        2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Re: @Denarius - "Penny for your thoughts?"

          > Are you actually thinking about P K Dick?

          Jeesus. Mixing up John Brunner and PKD?

          Really, now.

      3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Power transmission?

        @Denarius: Just because the cables can be thin doesn't mean they must be thin. If you wanted to use these CNT "threads" for high-voltage power transmission, you could easily braid them into a cable of suitable thickness for easy manipulation.

        As for protecting against heat damage due to lightening strikes, I suspect that's tractable too. On existing runs, you might keep the existing AL-steel lines up, and run the CNT lines just beneath them on the same pylons. Run the power over the CNT lines and ground the AL-steel ones. They'll take the strikes (or dissipate enough charge that the strike will happen somewhere else, depending on terrain).

  8. JDX Gold badge

    Gosh

    I thought this was one of those world-changing technological breakthroughs that was always 'just around the corner'. What next, sustainable fusion power? Linux desktop going mainstream?

    1. Steve Crook

      Re: Gosh

      "Linux desktop going mainstream?"

      Whoaaaaa there, steady on, lets not get carried away...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Gosh

      It's still "just around the corner". No commercially viable process yet. Mainstream Linux computers could easily come first... did you see the article about Lenovo planning Android laptopoids?

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: Gosh

        I think we'll see Fusion before Linuxtops.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Gosh

          @JDX: I think we'll see Fusion before Linuxtops.

          I think that's probably a given. Have you heard of that queer firey orb - said to hang magically in the daytime sky at more southerly climes?

  9. frank ly Silver badge

    All we need now .......

    ...... is room temperature superconductive carbon nanotubes. Five more years?

  10. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Genius!

    That is all.

  11. kabadisha
    Thumb Up

    This is freakin awesome.

    I bet F1 teams are looking at this for weaving lighter, stronger composite materials.

    I want some of this thread.

  12. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    What would Carbon fiber panels look like?

    Could you imagine weaving carbon fiber material from this thread?

    Sounds interesting.

  13. Mayday Silver badge
    Go

    I'm a skydiver...

    ...and I would love for my gear to be made out of this stuff. Stronger than steel and a whole rig weighing 2kg. Awesome!

    1. Denarius Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: I'm a skydiver...

      and we soaring pilots are already using carbon fiber, but it costs. Long threads will make much better spars. Perlan Project might finally be able to build their 300 kmh glider to get to 30,000 meters ! 90,000 feet in old language. A glider where only SR71s used to go. No not a typo, look it up.

      1. MJI Silver badge

        Re:Gliders

        The most common aircraft at that altitude is basically a glider design with jet engine.

        Only others I know of were the SR71 and the EE Lightning

        1. squigbobble
          Boffin

          Re: Re:Gliders

          "The most common aircraft at that altitude is basically a glider design with jet engine.

          Only others I know of were the SR71 and the EE Lightning"

          + MiG-25 Foxbat, built to intercept the U2.

  14. Robin

    Pb?

    "We finally have a nanotube fiber with properties that don't exist in any other material," said lead researcher Matteo Pasquali

    If he's normally researching lead, what qualifies him to talk about carbon?

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

      Re: Pb?

      If he's normally researching lead, what qualifies him to talk about carbon?

      For his next breakthrough ... a [carbon nanotube] Zeppelin.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pb?

      >If he's normally researching lead, what qualifies him to talk about carbon?

      You joke, but we had to go through and rename a bunch of positions because we were triggering EPA audits

  15. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. ObSolutions, Inc
    Happy

    Can we have our space elevator now, please?

    Thank you.

  17. Lord Elpuss Silver badge
    Pint

    Respect

    Respect to the lead researcher for actually going out of his way to name the student who made the breakthrough in 2009 - too many lead researchers these days simply claim the credit for themselves and add the name of the student as a 4-point footnote on page 2047 of their research paper.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Respect

      In my (20+) year experience of physics research, I have never come across this unethical "claim credit" behaviour. The worst I have seen is "demoting" student names to be non-first authors, but often this can depend on how much of the actual paper write up the student actually did (or was capable of).

      Generally, it is my impression that the lead researcher, being more well known, can promote the student all they like, but quite a lot of other researchers will just remember that there was some interesting work from "Thingy's group". This isn't a conspiracy, it's just that it's easier to remember the name of some guy they know as opposed to someone new.

      I'm not going to claim my experience is universal; maybe I've been lucky, or maybe it's dependent on the particular (sub)fields or groups I've worked with. But I see no evidence that it's endemic.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Respect

        In my (20+) year experience of physics research, I have never come across this unethical "claim credit" behaviour. The worst I have seen is "demoting" student names to be non-first authors, but often this can depend on how much of the actual paper write up the student actually did (or was capable of).

        I've seen similar in CS - plenty of papers where a grad student is first or second author.

        In Rhetoric and related fields, my other academic area, most papers are single-authored, and not infrequently by students; for multi-authored papers, it's usually the PI of record who's the first author, but I don't know of a case where a non-PI student who was significantly involved with the work didn't get an author credit. But things work differently in the humanities anyway - not necessarily better, just differently.

        I do know of one case where a professor published a student's work under his own name, but that was in the 1960s, and he was forced to print a retraction.

  18. mIRCat
    Boffin

    Only slightly less known than the stairway to Heaven.

    I'm getting my space elevator?

  19. Falanx
    Boffin

    *Which* Steel?

    And why do they never release the actual numbers? The last actually released mechanical property figures slipped drastically below the strength of steels above 2*mm* in length. Making them in visible quantities hasn't been a problem for years, the issue lies not with their 'difficult to work with' nature, but their utter sensitivity to thermal vacancy defects, defects that they *cannot* be made without and increase statisticallty with the temperature of manufacture. It is these defects that limit strength and the bigger you make them, the higher the probability of defetcs existing in the structure, a structure that requires perfection to achieve these magnificent strengths.

    I'm not saying that the theoretical strength of these materials isn't incredible, but the thing about materials science is not what you hope it will achieve, but what thermodynamics lets you achieve.

    I notice that no-one talks very much abotu the explosive strain energy contained in the structure, either. The propogation rate of energy release in these things at failure is about 50% higher than an equivalent mass of *TNT* :-D

  20. ciaran
    Thumb Up

    So this looks like Nylon ?

    Nylon started the plastics revolution. It was the first easy to produce long-chain polymer, from what I remember.

    If this can be industrialized it certainly will be a game-changer. But is there a risk of it becoming the next Asbestos ? Its built of individual microscopic fibers, if they became disaggregated and then airborne it would be bad for the lungs... So it might be reserved to special uses until the safety aspects are verified...

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    very nice. First use. replace all those copper cables that the metal thieves nick all the time.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: replace all those copper cables that the metal thieves nick all the time

      Wouldn't work. In many cases they're thieves because they're too stupid to do anything else. That's why they end up nicking fibre optic cables, thinking it's copper, and get a surprise when the scrap dealer tells them second hand glass isn't worth buying.

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: replace all those copper cables that the metal thieves nick all the time

        Who says 2nd-hand nanotube wires won't be worth anything?

        1. MooseMonkey

          Re: replace all those copper cables that the metal thieves nick all the time

          They won't be after they've burned them to get the copper out...

    2. CCCP
      Thumb Up

      Optional

      @AC 09:03

      Actually, you don't need to replace them. Once carbon becomes viable for lecky transmission, copper prices will plummet, and the incentive to purloin it will at least partially go away.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Optional

        Once carbon becomes viable for lecky transmission, copper prices will plummet, and the incentive to purloin it will at least partially go away.

        And we can go back to putting it on our houses! Mmm - copper gutters, copper ridges, maybe even copper roofs...

        My paint-and-plaster guy - an expert with faux finishes - wanted to paint my gutters with a faux-copper treatment. He used it on his own house and says it looks the part (he includes copper flakes and uses an acid wash to get verdigris). I had to turn him down; I knew I'd come home some day to find some idiot had torn my aluminum gutters off, thinking they were actually copper. It's a pity; copper half-rounds, maybe with some extraneous conductor heads, would look great on my Queen Anne.

  22. Gordo Rex
    Trollface

    One less use

    If it can be produced on an industrial scale, that means it will soon be affordable, meaning that it can't be used in F1 cars. Ah, well, back to the drawing board.

  23. NorthernCoder
    Boffin

    Electrical properties

    Does anyone know what capacitive and conductive properties it has?

    Can it be used for high speed signaling over great distances, without repeaters or losses?

    I'm thinking of e.g. (Cat5 and -6) Ethernet cables, if they could be replaced by thin (possibly even flat) nanotube cables without the need for twisted pairs and no need to replace existing comm. hardware...

    1. Bluewhelk
      Boffin

      Re: Electrical properties

      The article states that it is as conductive as copper (and 10x the tensile strength of steel). Capacitance is a function of the spacing of the conductors, so not really much different for a given arrangement and you'd probably want to keep twisted pairs due to the interference cancelling properties (emissions as well as signal corruption).

      On the plus side it would be harder to break.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

        Re: Electrical properties

        In addition to being (a bit) thinner it would certainly reduce the minimum curve radius on high speed cables presumably?

  24. Rob Crawford

    Good but

    isn't there a warning around carbon nanotube derived materials having the same issues as asbestos for peoples lungs.

    I remember mention of this from the 'blacker than a priests socks' material which made an appearance last year (also made from carbon nanotubes)

    Personally I'd be a bit worried about wearing that until some research has been carried out

    1. squigbobble
      Thumb Up

      Re: Good but

      "isn't there a warning around carbon nanotube derived materials having the same issues as asbestos for peoples lungs."

      When I was in the ATC (around 1999) we had a talk from one of the firemen while staying on base at RAF Sain Tathan. They were some of the first people to have to deal with carbon fibre in bad situations (it was being used in some aircraft parts e.g. rotor blades) and it was already known that burning it produces microscopic shards that outwardly resemble asbestos but nobody really knew more than that. On that basis they always attended aircraft fires where carbon fibre might be involved in full hazmat gear in case it turned out to be the new asbestos.

      I presume that more health effects (or lack thereof) have been clarified since.

      1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        Re: Good but

        I presume that more health effects (or lack thereof) have been clarified since.

        As a quick Google search reveals, there has been more than a little research done on the subject.

  25. Steve Foster
    Boffin

    Potential uses in "ordinary" electrics?

    If this stuff is much finer than copper wires, what might that mean for motors, and electromagnets (and other "mundane" electrical based stuff)? Could it mean maglev technology (for example) suddenly becomes viable without requiring room temperature superconductors?

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on industrial scale

    Good heavens, are they? Did they accidentally get into a teleport machine with a spider or something like that? Quick, stop them!

    1. mIRCat
      Alien

      Re: Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on industrial scale

      "Did they accidentally get into a teleport machine with a spider or something like that?"

      I've seen this movie. I don't recall it ending well.

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