Rice has made a cable from double-walled carbon nanotubes and powered a light bulb

Cables made of carbon nanotubes are inching toward electrical conductivities seen in metal wires, and that may light up interest among a range of industries, according to Rice University researchers.

A Rice lab made such a cable from double-walled carbon nanotubes and powered a fluorescent light bulb at standard line voltage — a true test of the novel material’s ability to stake a claim in energy systems of the future.

Nature Scientific Reports – Iodine doped carbon nanotube cables exceeding specific electrical conductivity of metals

Highly conductive nanotube-based cables could be just as efficient as traditional metals at a sixth of the weight, said Enrique Barrera, a Rice professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. They may find wide use first in applications where weight is a critical factor, such as airplanes and automobiles, and in the future could even replace traditional wiring in homes.

The cables developed in the study are spun from pristine nanotubes and can be tied together without losing their conductivity. To increase conductivity of the cables, the team doped them with iodine and the cables remained stable. The conductivity-to-weight ratio (called specific conductivity) beats metals, including copper and silver, and is second only to the metal with highest specific conductivity, sodium.

Electrical properties of the DWNT cables. (a) The resistivity as a function of diameter for 34 raw DWNT cables and 15 iodine doped cables. (b) A comparison in specific conductivity among raw, doped cables and several metals. Ra and Rh represent for the average and the highest one for the raw cables. Da and Dh are the values for the doped cables. (c) The relative resistance as a function of temperature. (d) The resistance as a function of temperature for two doped cables. The thermal treatment for the cable of 10.2 μm in diameter is continuous, but for the cable of 5.9 μm in diameter, after the 2nd run of the heating process, the temperature was held at 420 k for 4 hrs, and then continued with the 3rd run.

Yao Zhao, who recently defended his dissertation toward his doctorate at Rice, is the new paper’s lead author. He built the demo rig that let him toggle power through the nanocable and replace conventional copper wire in the light-bulb circuit.

Zhao left the bulb burning for days on end, with no sign of degradation in the nanotube cable. He’s also reasonably sure the cable is mechanically robust; tests showed the nanocable to be just as strong and tough as metals it would replace, and it worked in a wide range of temperatures. Zhao also found that tying two pieces of the cable together did not hinder their ability to conduct electricity.

The few centimeters of cable demonstrated in the present study seems short, but spinning billions of nanotubes (supplied by research partner Tsinghua University) into a cable at all is quite a feat, Barrera said. The chemical processes used to grow and then align nanotubes will ultimately be part of a larger process that begins with raw materials and ends with a steady stream of nanocable, he said. The next stage would be to make longer, thicker cables that carry higher current while keeping the wire lightweight. “We really want to go better than what copper or other metals can offer overall,” he said.

Creating highly electrically conducting cables from macroscopic aggregates of carbon nanotubes, to replace metallic wires, is still a dream. Here we report the fabrication of iodine-doped, double-walled nanotube cables having electrical resistivity reaching about 10^−7 Ω.m. Due to the low density, their specific conductivity (conductivity/weight) is higher than copper and aluminum and is only just below that of the highest specific conductivity metal, sodium. The cables exhibit high current-carrying capacity of 10^4~10^5 A/cm2 and can be joined together into arbitrary length and diameter, without degradation of their electrical properties. The application of such nanotube cables is demonstrated by partly replacing metal wires in a household light bulb circuit. The conductivity variation as a function of temperature for the cables is five times smaller than that for copper. The high conductivity nanotube cables could find a range of applications, from low dimensional interconnects to transmission lines.

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