Joined: 16 Mar 2004
|Posted: Fri Aug 28, 2009 9:35 am Post subject: Paper Aeroplanes are 500 Times Stronger than Steel
Image credit: LA Times.com from video.
It's called “buckypaper” and looks a lot like ordinary carbon paper, but don't be fooled by its cute name or flimsy appearance. It could revolutionize the way everything from aircraft to TVs are made.
Buckypaper is 10 times lighter but potentially 500 times stronger than steel when sheets of it are stacked and pressed together to form a composite. Unlike conventional composite materials, though, it conducts electricity like copper or silicon and disperses heat like steel or brass.
Image credit: LA Times.com from video.
“All those things are what a lot of people in nanotechnology have been working toward as sort of Holy Grails,” said Wade Adams, a scientist at Rice University .
Making a competitive product
That idea - that there is great future promise for buckypaper and other derivatives of the ultra-tiny cylinders - carbon nanotubes - has been floated for years. However, researchers at Florida State University say they have made important progress that soon may turn hype into reality.
. Because of Buckypaper's unique properties, it is envisioned as a wondrous new material for light, energy-efficient aircraft and automobiles, more powerful computers, improved TV screens and many other products.
So far, buckypaper can be made at only a fraction of its potential strength, in small quantities and at a high price. The Florida State researchers are developing manufacturing techniques that soon may make it competitive with the best composite materials available.
“If this thing goes into production, this very well could be a very, very game-changing or revolutionary technology to the aerospace business,” said Les Kramer, chief technologist for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, which is helping fund the Florida State research.
The scientific discovery that led to buckypaper virtually came from outer space.
A great exception
In 1985, British scientist Harry Kroto joined researchers at Rice University for an experiment to create the same conditions that exist in a star. They wanted to find out how stars, the source of all carbon in the universe, make the element that is a main building block of life.
Everything went as planned - with one exception.
“There was an extra character that turned up totally unexpected,” said Kroto, now at Florida State heading a program that encourages the study of math, science and technology in public schools. “It was a discovery out of left field.”
The surprise guest was a molecule with 60 carbon atoms shaped like a soccer ball. To Kroto, it also looked like the geodesic domes promoted by Buckminster Fuller, an architect, inventor and futurist. That inspired Kroto to name the new molecule buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyballs” for short.
For their discovery of the buckyball - the third form of pure carbon to be discovered after graphite and diamonds - Kroto and his Rice colleagues, Robert Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley, were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.
Adding on to the discovery
Separately, Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima developed a tube-shaped variation while doing research at Arizona State University .
Researchers at Smalley's laboratory then inadvertently found the tubes would stick together when disbursed in a liquid suspension and filtered through a fine mesh, producing a thin film - buckypaper.
The secret of its strength is the huge surface area of each nanotube, said Ben Wang, director of Florida State 's High-Performance Materials Institute.
“If you take a gram of nanotubes, just one gram, and if you unfold every tube into a graphite sheet, you can cover about two-thirds of a football field,” Wang said.
Carbon nanotubes already are beginning to be used to strengthen tennis rackets and bicycles, but in small amounts.
The epoxy resins used in those applications are 1 percent to 5 percent carbon nanotubes, which are added in the form of a fine powder. Buckypaper, which is a thin film rather than a powder, has a much higher nanotube content - about 50 percent.
One challenge is that the tubes clump together at odd angles, limiting their strength in buckypaper. Wang and his fellow researchers found a solution: Exposing the tubes to high magnetism causes most of them to line up in the same direction, increasing their collective strength.
Another problem is the tubes are so perfectly smooth it's hard to hold them together with epoxy. Researchers are looking for ways to create some surface defects - but not too many - to improve bonding.
So far, the Florida State institute has been able to produce buckypaper with half the strength of the best existing composite material, known as IM7. Wang expects to close the gap quickly.
“By the end of next year we should have a buckypaper composite as strong as IM7, and it's 35 percent lighter,” Wang said.
Buckypaper now is being made only in the laboratory, but Florida State is in the early stages of spinning out a company to make commercial buckypaper.
“These guys have actually demonstrated materials that are capable of being used on flying systems,” said Adams, director of Rice's Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. “Having something that you can hold in your hand is an accomplishment in nanotechnology.”
It takes upward of five years to get a new structural material certified for aviation use, so Wang said he expects buckypaper's first uses will be for electromagnetic interference shielding and lightning-strike protection on aircraft.