Nanotube sheets come of age: "They're soft, strong, and very, very long.
Large, transparent sheets of carbon nanotubes can now be produced at lightning speed. The new technique should allow the nanotubes to be used in commercial devices from heated car windows to flexible television screens.
'Rarely is a processing advance so elegantly simple that rapid commercialization seems possible,' says Ray Baughman, a chemist from the University of Texas at Dallas, whose team unveils the ribbon in this week's Science1.
Nanotubes are tiny cylinders of carbon atoms measuring just billionths of a metre across. They are light, strong, and conductive. But for years their promise has outweighed their utility, because the complicated processes involved in making devices from nanotubes were too slow and expensive to be used in large-scale manufacturing.
But now, nanotubes have gone into warp drive. Baughman's team can churn out up to ten metres of nanoribbon every minute, as easily as pulling a strip of sticky tape from a reel (see video ). This ribbon can be up to five centimetres wide, and after a simple wash in ethanol compacts to just 50 nanometres thick, making it 2,000 times thinner than a piece of paper.
The ribbons are transparent, flexible, and conduct electricity. Weight for weight, they are stronger than steel sheets, yet a square kilometre of the material would weight only 30 kilograms. This is basically a new material," says Baughman.