Ray Baughman, a materials scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, has found a way to spin submicroscopic cylinders of carbon atoms into the toughest fiber ever made. The work may have realized, at long last, the promise of single-walled nanotubes—tiny, cylindrical strands of carbon that have been lauded for their strength and conductivity but have found few practical applications.
The carbon cylinders have captured engineers' attention because the individual tubes are amazingly strong and electrically conductive. But in their raw state they normally exist as powders that are notoriously difficult to process into useful materials. Baughman and his team simplified things by combining lots of short tubes with a binding polymer and spinning the mixture into a filament about as thick as a human hair. The resulting thread is 20 times tougher than steel and can be as long as desired. For the first time, engineers can experiment with weaving nanotubes into a tough fabric that doubles as a piece of electrical hardware. Baughman envisions soldiers wearing protective nanotube uniforms that have built-in circuitry, batteries, and even infrared camouflage. Before that can happen, he needs the price of nanotubes to come down: "Right now, they are more expensive than gold."