Now, engineers at the University of Florida and two other universities have added another possibility: Foams used in everything from construction to cushions to packaging.
An article about the engineers' discovery appears Friday in the journal Science.
First created in 1991, carbon nanotubes are among new forms of carbon called fullerenes because their sides mimic the geodesic domes designed by famed mathematician Buckminster Fuller. Nanotubes are infinitesimal cylinders with single or multiple walls that can be only a few nanometers wide. One nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter.
Carbon nanotubes are very strong. Mixed with conventional materials, they are already improving the performance of concrete and other products. They also have electrical and magnetic characteristics expected to make them useful in microchips and other electronics.
Engineers at the University of Florida, University of Hawaii and Rensselaer Polytechnic University appear to have opened the door to another use. Using a high-temperature furnace, the engineers grew foam-like nanotube films that proved to be super compressible.
Testing showed the films can be squeezed to 15 percent of their regular size, forming regular folded structures throughout the films.
Greg Sawyer, a UF associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said researchers "hope to infiltrate the films with solid materials to create new 'nanocomposites.'" These multifunctional nanocomposites would be useful for solid lubricating coatings in air and space applications, he said.
This research was partially funded through a $2.5 million grant from the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research through UF-led Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.