Carbon wiring

Researchers at Rice University (US) have made the first-ever electrical cables from carbon nanotubes, the magazine Technology Review heralds.

Making lightweight, efficient carbon nanotube wiring as conductive as copper has been a goal of nanotechnologists since the 1980s, according to Technology Review. Individual carbon nanotubes are mechanically strong and an order of magnitude more conductive than copper.

The researchers made small cables that are flexible enough to be knotted together into long lengths of wire, carrying about 100,000 amps of current per square centimetre of material, which about the same amount as copper wires, but weigh one-sixth as much. These nanotube cables could provide lightweight wiring for more-fuel-efficient vehicles and planes, as well as making connections in low-power computer chips.

Nanotechnologist Dr Ruud van Ommen, of the faculty of Applied Sciences, wonders how easy it will be to upscale the production. “The researchers made a small, 10 centimetre-long cable, which is an impressive step. However, the effort it took them will certainly not be trivial. What’s more, they say that they can knot the wires together, which to me that seems a lot less practical than soldering metals.”

Dr Gary Steele, of the molecular electronics devices group (faculty of Applied

Sciences), wouldn’t be surprised if the technology is upscaled quickly. “We’ve seen the same happening with graphene,” he explains. “That went surprisingly fast.”

Steele experiments a lot with carbon nanotubes, on the molecular level, to discover new quantum mechanical properties. “I think it’s very impressive that these researchers were able to select nanotubes with the exact same properties and arranged those molecules of only 1 nanometre in diameter into something as thick as a tenth of a millimetre,” he says.

Yet, if the technology can be upscaled, there might be another problem. Van Ommen remarks that carbon nanotubes might be carcinogenic. “This could be problematic, especially if you process them in products that are not recycled carefully, like consumer electronics,” he says, adding that the aviation industry would be a better candidate for carbon nanotubes. “The recycling of airplanes is much better regulated.”

Aerospace materials expert, Professor Sybrand van der Zwaag (faculty of

Aerospace Engineering), sees opportunities for aircraft builders as well: “Big airplanes use lots of electrical cables, needing hundreds of kilos of cables just to connect all the TV screens in the seats. If carbon nanotubes become cheaper, it could be interesting to use them to reduce weight.

“They could also put the nanotube wires in the fuselage of the Boeing Dreamliner to reduce weight. That airplane is made of composite material and thus doesn’t conduct electricity. As a protection measure against lightning strikes, Boeing put 800 kilos of copper wires in the fuselage to function as a lightning rod.”  

Name: Marieke Kluin (28)
Nationality: Dutch
Supervisor: Professor Ben Ale (Technology, Policy and Management, Safety Science Group) and Professor Wim Huisman (VU Amsterdam, Criminology)
Subject: Regulatory violations and compliance in chemical corporations
Thesis defense: In 2.5 years

“Ten years ago, there was a horrible fireworks disaster in the Dutch city of Enschede. An enormous explosion that killed 23 people, injured close to a thousand and destroyed some 400 homes. This disaster made it clear that some things needed to change in the Netherlands. My research focuses on compliance and violation of rules and regulations imposed on chemical companies.

“I accompany the inspectors when they visit 15 companies in the Netherlands. I observe how they work regarding the chemical industry’s occupational safety, health and environmental regulations. The inspectors start by having consultation discussions with representatives of the chemical company they’re visiting. I’d like to know what they discuss. After that they inspect the facility, checking for example if the employees have been properly trained to do their jobs. The inspectors also check to see if there is an evacuation plan in place, and they talk to as many people as possible, to determine if they know the rules regarding their work; for instance, the worker who fills gas tanks must know exactly how to do this.

“Through my research, I hope to determine if a company that has played by the rules for the past ten years has a smaller chance of having accidents occur. And if many minor violations lead to major accidents? I’d also like to know if the assumption is correct that small companies do not know all the rules exactly. If I conclude that most of them do not, then I could work on specific tools aimed at improving this.

“At one of the companies I visited last year, violations were identified. The company did not use special signs to indicate where certain kinds of dangerous liquids should be stored. The risk therefore was that certain chemicals, which should never be put together, would end up being stored next to each other. I’d like to know what that company has done with the feedback the inspectors gave them.

“I like the hands-on approach of my research. I could have focused solely on the data from the inspectors’ reports, but I like to see how the inspectors work and listen to their discussions during inspections, since there is very little scientific insight in this. Recently I’ve been on maternity leave for four months. After that I had to adjust doing my research again, since my PhD study was also put on hold during this period. One of the most fascinating things about my research is that I’ve combined both of my studies, technology and criminology. I hope the multidisciplinary aspect of my research will lead to new insights in safety science and criminology.”

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