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Carbon nanotube fibers surpass copper cables
Feb '14
On a pound-per-pound basis, carbon nanotube-based fibers invented at Rice University have greater capacity to carry electrical current than copper cables of the same mass, according to new research.
While individual nanotubes are capable of transmitting nearly 1,000 times more current than copper, the same tubes coalesced into a fiber using other technologies fail long before reaching that capacity.
But a series of tests at Rice showed the wet-spun carbon nanotube fiber still handily beat copper, carrying up to four times as much current as a copper wire of the same mass.
That, said the researchers, makes nanotube-based cables an ideal platform for lightweight power transmission in systems where weight is a significant factor, like aerospace applications.
The analysis led by Rice professors Junichiro Kono and Matteo Pasquali appeared online this week in the journal Advanced Functional Materials. Just a year ago the journal Science reported that Pasquali’s lab, in collaboration with scientists at the Dutch firm Teijin Aramid, created a very strong conductive fiber out of carbon nanotubes.
Present-day transmission cables made of copper or aluminum are heavy because their low tensile strength requires steel-core reinforcement.
Scientists working with nanoscale materials have long thought there’s a better way to move electricity from here to there. Certain types of carbon nanotubes can carry far more electricity than copper. The ideal cable would be made of long metallic “armchair” nanotubes that would transmit current over great distances with negligible loss, but such a cable is not feasible because it’s not yet possible to manufacture pure armchairs in bulk, Pasquali said.
In the meantime, the Pasquali lab has created a method to spin fiber from a mix of nanotube types that still outperforms copper. The cable developed by Pasquali and Teijin Aramid is strong and flexible even though at 20 microns wide, it’s thinner than a human hair.
Pasquali turned to Kono and his colleagues, including lead author Xuan Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Rice, to quantify the fiber’s capabilities.
Pasquali said there has been a disconnect between electrical engineers who study the current carrying capacity of conductors and materials scientists working on carbon nanotubes. “That has generated some confusion in the literature over the right comparisons to make,” he said. “Jun and Xuan really got to the bottom of how to do these measurements well and compare apples to apples.”

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