3 Futuristic Uses of Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are currently revolutionizing many fields including nanotechnology, personalized electronic wearables, optics, electronics and other fields of materials science and technology because of their unique framework and properties. Carbon nanotubes have a long, narrow structure with walls which are formed by one-atom-thick sheets of carbon, called graphene. They are nearly the thinnest tubes that can be fashioned from nature. They have unusual thermal, mechanical and electrical properties which make them ideal for a wide variety of applications.

Flexible Electronics

A race is underway to create flexible, bendable electronics with carbon nanotubes that could eventually replace current electronics which are made with more brittle materials. Many researchers all over the world are experimenting with various methods to develop carbon nanotubes for mass production. There are a few problems that prevent the widespread adoption of carbon nanotubes: it’s not cost-effective to manufacture highly pure tubes and they are not packed densely enough onto the substrate.

Two researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Gopalan and Arnold, have pioneered a newly-improved carbon nanotube development technique called floating evaporative self-assembly, or FESA. This technique solves a packing density problem that has prevented the widespread adoption of carbon nanotubes in flexible electronics. The team is currently working with companies to accelerate the adoption of this technology. Many other researchers have made other breakthroughs as well.

carbon nanotubes[Image Source: Wikimedia]

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Bioelectric Nose

In the future, drug-sniffing dogs could be replaced with hybrids of olfactory receptor proteins and carbon nanotube transistors, called bioelectronic noses. Believe it or not, a group of researchers led by Charlie Johnson is working on creating a carbon nanotube transistor that is capable “smelling”. This group is transferring sensing properties of biological proteins from mice to electronic devices. This is called bionanotechnology, a form of biology and electronic interfacing, the kind you read about in sci-fi novels when you were a kid.

Johnson, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania stated:

“We were motivated to make bioelectronic hybrids where there is a carefully designed chemical linkage between the OR [olfactory receptor proteins] and the nanotube device, as well as an engineered membrane-like environment for the OR.” ~ Michael Berger from Nanowerk 

The bioelectric nose they devised had a shelf-life of several months, which is considerably longer than previously thought possible. Johnson admits that there are still major challenges to making a bioelectronic nose a reality. Purification of the olfactory receptor proteins from the cellular expression system is highly problematic.

Carbon_nanotube_zigzag_povray[Image Source: Wikimedia]

Nanospeakers

We soon could have a piece of clothing or any ordinary object capable of making sound. Nanospeakers have successfully been made from ultra-thin, flexible nanotube sheets by a team of Chinese researchers.

To understand how these nanospeakers work, you first need to understand how thunder is created because nanospeakers are guided by the same principles. You hear thunder after a lightning bolt for a reason. Here’s why: when a lightning bolt travels from the cloud and strikes the ground, a hole in the air is opened up which is called a channel. Once the light is gone the air collapses back in and creates a sound wave that we hear as thunder.

In nanospeakers, when an electric current is applied to the tubes, the air is heated and expanded which then causes sound waves to be created. This is called thermoacoustic effect and it is different from the physics behind standard speakers. Conventional speakers generate sound from the vibrations in the air molecules but the nanospeaker doesn’t emit vibrations at all. Read a detailed description of these nanospeakers here.

What kind of object would you like to see in the future with sound-generating capabilities? Will iPods be replaced by nanospeaker-infused jackets? After a long day at work, will you sink down into your comfy recliner and listen to your chair as it plays your favorite song? The future is going to be weird, that’s for sure.

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