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New Process for Making Tiny, Super-Tough Fibers Could be Revolutionary, say Experts

Scientific journals are abuzz with news of a major development in nanotechnology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Researchers have uncovered a reliable method for making tiny, super-tough fibers that could dramatically change clothes, cars and even space travel.

Nano-science is the study of extremely small objects. But researchers like Ralph Merkle with the California-based Foresight Institute, like to say they're studying "the next big thing."

"This revolution is going to transform our material world. It will let us make a whole host of products less expensively, with great strength, with less pollution and in general simply with better properties all around," he explained.

Proving nanotechnology could live up to these promises has been challenging. But in June, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas announced a major advance with so-called carbon nanotubes. Ray Baughman, who directs UTD's Nanotech Institute, explains what they've done with these submicroscopic cylinders made of graphite.

"What we've discovered is that we can assemble by a special spinning process something like hundreds of trillions of these microscopic carbon nanotubes per inch of a fiber about the diameter of your hair to make fibers which are super tough and also very strong," he said.

These fibers are stronger than spider silk, long enough to weave into regular fabrics for clothing, and capable of storing electricity. That has ignited the attention of the U.S. Defense Department. John Ferraris, the head of UTD's Chemistry Department, said the Pentagon has helped fund the research, hoping it would have applications in the field.

Soldiers need to carry batteries to power their communications and their detection systems and stuff like that and basically they carry many pounds of batteries in the field. If you could have them wear clothing that basically serves dual purposes, one of which is energy storage, then you could reduce the weight of the batteries they need to carry around.

Essentially, the batteries could be woven into a soldier's fatigues. So could antennas and communications equipment. And Professor Ferraris can picture civilian uses for the technology, as well. "Other applications that people have talked about is basically MP3's in your shirt or DVD's on your jacket," he said.

With such a high-tech future in store for nanofibers, you might expect the lab where UTD scientists created them to resemble something out of a futuristic science-fiction movie.

But the process for spinning the tiny carbon nanotubes into long fibers has at times been relatively low-tech.

Alan Dalton, a researcher from Ireland, and his colleagues found the record player in a garbage dump. "We used to spin onto a record player, as you can see here.... We did, yeah, we just fixed the motor on it," Mr. Dalton said.

The process is a bit more advanced these days. The contraption that spins the nanotubes into nanofibers includes a motor, a glass pipe and a beaker filled with a clear liquid. As Mr. Dalton pulls the new nanofiber from the beaker, it resembles a glob of dark slime.

"And then we just take this stuff out of the bath and let it dry and it forms a dry fiber," Mr. Dalton explained.

It looks something like a very thin stand of black thread and can be spun as long as 400 meters. The nanofibers developed before this were shorter and weaker.

Kevin Ausman, who studies applications for nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston, said the breakthrough in Dallas also gives new life to the dreams of scientists, who envision nanofibers making possible everything from safer cars to an elevator into outer space. "The amazing thing is that the UTD group was able to overcome various barriers that have been cropping up and getting in everybody's way for making fibers and it's just a remarkable advance," he said.

"The elevator into space idea is basically taking the cable and running from the ground into Earth's orbit and the idea is that you can then have something basically climb the cable rather than using rocket fuel to get into space," Mr. Ausman said.

Professor Ausman and others believe that cable could be woven from nanofibers. "The particular fibers that were developed at UTD are not yet that strong, but it is the first indication that some of the properties of nanotubes are going to work well on large scales," he said.

Some scientists say they still need a better understanding of why the UTD process works before they can start using nanofibers in consumer products. But Ralph Merkle with the Foresight Institute likes to recall that few people envisioned supersonic flight when the Wright brothers first invented the airplane. So it's hard to guess where the recent advances made on the UTD campus will take the field of nanotechnology.