Researchers in the Lyding Group at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have discovered an efficient, sustainable method for 3D-printing single-walled carbon nanotube films, a versatile, durable material that can transform how we explore space, engineer aircraft, and wear electronic technology.
Made of carbon-based tubes with diameters between 1 and 2 nanometers wide, this small-but-mighty material has been scrutinized by researchers for decades. Gang Wang, the study’s lead author, discovered a novel way to produce them.
Gang WangGang Wang, a former Beckman Institute researcher, is a lead coauthor on a study that discovered a novel method for 3D-printing carbon nanotube films. “We were inspired by the idea of creating a material that is lightweight, but strong and conductive like metals,” said Wang, a former researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “After many attempts, we chose a printing method based on a 3D printer, which produces the film with outstanding properties and high efficiency.”
His method, which is reported in Nano-Micro Letters, is easily scalable and environmentally friendly. Forgoing polymers in favor of a simpler recipe consisting of carbon powder, ink, and a 3D printer enables the team to create carbon nanotube films that are stronger and more durable than existing versions of the material.
Despite weighing only one-fifteenth of what copper weighs, carbon nanotubes are more thermally conductive than their metal counterpart. This helps the materials weather extreme temperature swings not unlike those experienced in space.
“Spacecraft could certainly benefit from the addition of carbon nanotubes. In space, materials are subjected to extreme temperature changes depending on whether they are facing the sun or the cold of deep space. Our films could easily withstand these changes,” Lyding said.
Though approximately 100,000 times narrower than a cloth thread, carbon nanotubes share a function with wool, cotton, and felt — the material’s mechanical flexibility is an ideal characteristic of wearable electronics, refusing to break even after experiencing “deformations like bending, twisting, and kneading,” Wang said.
The films have just as many uses within Earth’s atmosphere as without. Their mechanical flexibility, for example, makes them ideal for vehicles in the air and on land that sustain high levels of jostling and vibration — for example, a rocket launch or moving aircraft.
“Their chemical durability may be useful for prolonging device lifetime or for use in equipment subject to extreme chemical conditions such as inside of chemical reaction vessels or in equipment used for chemical spill cleanup,” Lyding said.