For more than forty years, the world has been aware of the potential of carbon nanotubes as a base material.
These minute, tubular cylinders of carbon atoms have extraordinary mechanical, electrical, thermal, optical and chemical properties. They have 200 times the strength and five times the elasticity of steel; and five times the electrical conductivity, 15 times the thermal conductivity and 1,000 times the current capacity of copper. Importantly, they also have almost none of the environmental or physical degradation issues common to metals.
However, they have also been among the most exciting, but frustrating, materials in the world to effectively harness. That is, until now.
A team of scientists led by Flinders University has recently shown that it is possible, for the first time, to cut this holy grail of base materials, in continuous flow and at a consistent length of 170 nanometres, without oxidization, and without using nasty chemicals.
The Flinders University team, led by Professor Raston, invented the Vortex Fluidic Device (VFD) which enables carbon nanotubes to be cut using only water and a solvent, a laser and a device the size of a thermos flask.
A world-first, this exciting development opens up all kinds of possibilities.
By unlocking the potential of one of the world’s strongest materials, we can tackle countless applications for everything from next-generation targeted cancer drugs, to more efficient solar panels, to new, super precise digital technologies.
The usual random sized lengths of entangled carbon nanotube created by other methods have so far allowed only relatively crude applications and constrained their use in drug delivery and complex electronics because of the resulting inability to guarantee consistent properties.
“Until now, the ‘revolution’ in technology predicted when carbon nanotubes were first created has been frustrated by our inability to accurately control their length. Now, the revolution is back on track,” says Professor Raston.
“This has been made possible by the VFD, which has a mind boggling range of applications, from unravelling proteins (famously demonstrated by unboiling an egg last year), to creating biofuel - and now untangling and cutting carbon nanotubes.
“In the case of carbon nanotubes, the way the liquid moves in the device is very complex, but the movement is important in the cutting. It’s a contradiction; taking an exceptionally strong material and yet being able cut it in a liquid without heating, but that’s what the VFD can do.”
Flinders University PhD candidate Kasturi Vimalanathan, played a key role in developing the cutting process.
“We are now investigating the wide range of commercial possibilities for the precision-cut carbon nanotubes,” she says.
“Anyone who knows anything about carbon nanotubes will be incredibly excited by this development and will immediately understand what it means for a huge range of medical and technological applications. Having made those applications possible, Flinders University is now in the box seat to develop the new wave of technologies that we expect to flow on from this achievement.”
The new application of the device involved collaboration between Flinders University, Curtin University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and ANSTO.