(Source: NBC)

Florida State University researcher Ben Wang, who has led efforts to improve and commercialize buckypaper, paper made out of carbon nanotubes, shows off a microscopic image of the material onscreeen. His team is close to developing the world's strong material, and hope to tie the existing leader by the year's end.  (Source: AP)
New nanotube paper is expected to set the mark as the world's strongest material by the year's end, to be used in aircraft

Carbon nanotubes are one of those ubiquitous technologies that will likely see a vast array of uses in decades to come.  From cancer treatments to better electronics, there seems to be no limit to the little carbon molecules applications.  With production of nanotube sheets advancing rapidly, researchers are expanding their studies to include looking at using sheets of carbon nanotubes as a construction material.

Enter buckypaper.  Buckypaper on its own looks like a mere thin, filmy paper and looks very fragile.  However, this unassuming new paper may revolutionize the face of automobiles, aircraft, and more in years to come.

The new paper is composed of intertwined carbon nanotubes.  Thanks to nanotubes' excellent flexibility, it can bend like normal paper.  Multiple sheets can be stacked for rigidity.  However, unlike normal paper, it can be up to 500 times stronger than steel, its creators predict, while being a mere tenth of the weight.

Ben Wang, director of Florida State's High-Performance Materials Institute, has been leading the effort to develop buckypaper.  His work is based on earlier work by Robert Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley, Rice researchers and Nobel Prize winners, who discovered that nanotubes would stick together when dispersed in a suspension and then passed filter through a fine mesh to yield a film.  This film would be refined to become buckypaper.

Professor Wang says the key to the paper's super strength is the extremely high surface area of nanotube molecules.  He states, "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."

Nanotubes have been used in limited quantity as a strengthener tennis racket and bicycle epoxies, but these efforts have used the tubes in a powder form.  They also only use 1 to 5 percent nanotubes, where buckypaper uses nearly 50 percent nanotubes.  Thus it’s more useful, but also more expensive.

The researchers have already created buckypaper half as strong as the best existing composite material, known as IM7, and expect to have a version of buckypaper as strong as IM7 by the year's end.  IM7 itself is significantly stronger than steel.  Professor Wang describes, "By the end of next year we should have a buckypaper composite as strong as IM7, and it's 35 percent lighter."

Florida State is spinning off a company to make commercial quantities of the nanopaper.  It plans on initially marketing the paper for aircraft electrical shielding and for military grade EMF shielding.  The paper is excellent conductor and channels harmful electricity and electrical fields away from delicate components.  It can shield four times the level mandated by a recent Air Force proposal.  Replacing typical copper shielding with the lighter buckypaper would save fuel and weight.

The team also hopes to use the material to replace the graphite cooling sheets found in laptop cases, as the buckypaper would be more effective at heat dissipation.  They're also hoping to use the material in electrodes in fuel cells, super capacitors and batteries.

The next step is to build entire airplanes, cars, and military-grade armor plating out of the paper, says Professor Wang.  The military has already expressed great interest in the latter use.  Says Professor Wang, "Our plan is perhaps in the next 12 months we'll begin maybe to have some commercial products.  Nanotubes obviously are no longer just lab wonders. They have real world potential. It's real."

While the commercial effort is just getting off the ground, the researchers' colleagues at other universities are already cheering the effort.  States Wade Adams, director of Rice's Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, "These guys have actually demonstrated materials that are capable of being used on flying systems.  Having something that you can hold in your hand is an accomplishment in nanotechnology."

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