In a collaborative effort, scientists at CSIRO Textile and Fibre Technology (CTFT) have achieved a major technological breakthrough that should soon lead to the production of futuristic strong, light and flexible 'smart' clothing materials.
In partnership with the world-renowned NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas, CTFT has adapted textile technologies used to spin wool and other fibres to produce yarns made solely from carbon nanotubes (CNTs).
Synthetically-made CNTs have a range of unique physical properties – including the ability to conduct electricity and heat – which provide them with the potential to be used in the manufacture of materials with a diverse range of applications.
Initial research into the potential uses of the new material is focussed on the production of vests and 'soft' body armour to provide protection from bullets and other small ballistic missiles. This application exploits the excellent mechanical properties of the CNTs.
However, the ability to incorporate electronic sensors and actuators into CNT yarn also makes it a potentially valuable addition to the range of specialist materials now being used in medical and military applications. It could, for example, be used to produce garments that act as electrically-driven 'muscles'.
In an article in the latest edition of the prestigious journal, Science, the ability to spin CNTs into yarn is described as a major breakthrough. The significance of the development is that it is expected to make the manufacture of pure CNT yarns economically feasible. CNT yarns, due to their unprecedented combination of mechanical and electronic properties, are likely to be used in electronic textiles and electron emitters for ultra high-intensity fluorescent lamps.
The development of spun CNT yarns is based on the concept of scaling down the dimensions of conventional fibres and yarns from the microscale to the nanoscale using the ancient technology of twist-based spinning.
"We believe CNTs, either as pure yarns or composites, will revolutionise engineered fabrics due to their excellent strength and toughness and their high electrical and thermal conductivities," says CTFT's research team leader, Ken Atkinson.
The Science article describes the method of CNT yarn formation and provides details of the properties of the yarns produced.
A US patent application on the new technology was recently lodged.
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