Nanotube-reinforced composites could ultimately provide the foundation for a new class of strong and lightweight fibers with properties such as electrical and thermal conductivity unavailable in current textile fibers.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Rice University, Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc. and the U.S. Air Force have been developing new processes for incorporating nanotubes into fibers and films. The results of that work will be presented March 28 at the 227th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif.
"We are going to have dramatic developments in the textile materials field over the next 10 or 20 years because of nanotechnology, specifically carbon nanotubes," predicted Satish Kumar, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Polymer, Textile and Fiber Engineering. "Using carbon nanotubes, we could make textile fibers that would have thermal and electrical conductivity, but with the touch and feel of a typical textile. You could have a shirt in which the electrically-conducting fibers allow cell phone functionality to be built in without using metallic wires or optical fibers."
Thanks to the work of Kumar and researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory, nanotubes have already found their way into fibers known as Zylon, the strongest polymeric fiber in the world. By incorporating 10 percent nanotubes, research has shown that the strength of this fiber can be increased by 50 percent.
Recently, Kumar's research team has been collaborating with Richard Smalley, a Rice University professor who received a 1996 Nobel Prize for his work in developing nanotubes, which are of great interest because of their high strength, light weight, electrical conductivity and thermal resistance.
The researchers have developed a technique for producing composite fibers containing varying percentages of carbon nanotubes, up to a maximum of about 10 percent. Produced by Rice University and Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc., single-walled nanotubes exist in bundles 30 nanometers in diameter containing more than 100 tubes.
To produce composite fibers, the bundles are first dispersed in an organic solvent, acid or water containing surfactants. Polymer materials are then dissolved with the dispersed nanotubes, and fibers produced using standard textile manufacturing techniques and equipment. The resulting composite fibers have the similar touch and feel as standard textile fibers.
Addition of carbon nanotubes to traditional fibers can double their stiffness, reduce shrinkage by 50 percent, raise the temperature at which the material softens by 40 degrees Celsius and improve solvent resistance. Kumar believes these properties will make the composite fibers valuable to the aerospace industry, where the improved strength could reduce the amount of fiber needed for composite structures, cutting weight.
"If you can increase the modulus (stiffness) by a factor of two, in many applications you can also reduce the weight by a factor of two," Kumar noted.
But the greatest impact of carbon nanotubes will be realized only if researchers can learn how to break up the bundles to produce individual nanotubes, a process called exfoliation. If that can be done, the quantity of tubes required to improve the properties of fibers could be reduced from 10 percent to as little as 0.1 percent by weight That could help make use of the tubes - which now cost hundreds of dollars per gram -feasible for commercial products.
Including individual nanotubes in composite fibers could help improve the orientation of the polymer chains they contain, reducing the amount of fiber entanglement and increasing the crystallization rate. That could introduce new properties not currently available in fibers.
"If we can do this, that would conceptually change how fibers are made," Kumar said. "Having a very tough temperature resistant material with a density of less than water seems like a dream today, but we may be able to see that with this new generation of materials."
Beyond breaking up the nanotube bundles, researchers also face a challenge in uniformly dispersing the carbon nanotubes in polymers and properly orienting them.
In addition to aircraft structures, Kumar sees nanotube composite fibers bringing electronic capabilities to garments, perhaps allowing cellular telephone or computing capabilities to be woven in using fibers that have the touch and feel of conventional textiles. But producing conducting fibers would require boosting the nanotube percentage to as much as 20 percent.
To advance these concepts, Kumar hopes to form a "Carbon Nanotube-enabled Materials Consortium" at Georgia Tech to conduct both basic and applied research in areas of interest to industry.
He expects composite fibers based on carbon nanotubes to bring about the most significant changes to the textile industry since synthetic fibers were introduced in the 1930s.
"In 1900, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, Kevlar and other modern fibers did not exist, but life today seems to depend on them," he said. "The rate at which technology is changing is increasing, so much more dramatic changes can be expected in the next 100 years. Every major polymer fiber company in the world is now paying attention to the potential impact of carbon nanotubes."
Papers on the work have appeared in the journals Advanced Materials, Chemistry of Materials, Macromolecules, Nano Letters and Polymer. The work on nanocomposites has been sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Office of Naval Research, Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).