Nanocomp Wins Air Force Grant to Make Carbon-Nanotube Wiring for Aircraft

3/26/08

You may remember a few weeks back, when Nanocomp Technologies of Concord, NH, announced that it was able to make what it called the world’s largest sheets of carbon nanotubes. Well, it seems like the folks at Slashdot weren’t the only ones intrigued by the technology. The Air Force has awarded the company a Small Business Innovation Grant to try and develop wires and cables made from carbon nanotubes. The Phase One grant is to study the feasibility of the concept. If it looks promising, further grants could follow.

Even in today’s high-tech world, the main method of transporting electricity through a machine is good old-fashioned copper wire. But despite its excellent conductivity, copper has its downside when you’re flying across continents or launching things into orbit—weight. Nanocomp says that a third of the weight of a 15-ton satellite comes from copper wire, while a Boeing 747 has more than 135 miles of wire weighing two tons. If wires and cables made of carbon nanotubes were to replace all that copper, they could weigh as little as one fifth as much. Lighter weight, in turn, translates into a significant savings in the amount of fuel needed to hurl these things through the air.

Most of the industrially produced carbon nanotubes today are only a few microns long, essentially coming out of the process as carbon nanotube powder. Nanocomp has come up with a way to grow the tubes to lengths of about a millimeter, a thousand times as long, which the company says are “significantly more conductive.” Nanocomp is able to put out nanotubes that overlap each other and form a mat, creating sheets that measure three by six feet and may be as large as 100 feet square by this summer.

Because of the way the carbon atoms link together, nanotubes are potentially as strong as steel but much lighter, and have desirable electrical properties. In announcing the grant, Nanocomp CEO Peter Antoinette said, “Our work can result in a true 21st century change in the game, creating electrically optimized carbon nanotube wires and cables, comparable to copper in terms of electrical conductivity but up to 80 percent lighter and more robust.”

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    The idea of carbon nanotube cable reminds me of an idea floated by the recently-departed Sir Arthur C. Clarke. This visionary communicator not only proposed the idea of geosynchronous satellites, but was one of the first to outline the concept of a space elevator anchored to Earth by a long, strong filament. In “The Fountains of Paradise” (1979) Clarke described the space elevator cables as being composed of “continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystal,” but carbon nanotube cables might fit the bill equally well ;-)

  • Chris Gates

    Theoretically carbon nanotubes are 62 times stronger than steel under tensile load. Flywheel energy storage system/device, built with carbon nanotubes wire, wound as current kevlar flywheels, could easily meet the 100MPGe automotive X-Prize.

    Key is coming up with a way to create large volumes of CNs.

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