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Dr Ya-Li Li, Dr Marcelo Motta, Dr Ian Kinloch, Dr Shanju Zhang, Dr Premnath Venugopalan, Dr Martin Pick and Professor Alan Windle FRS.
University of Cambridge.

A radical new approach enables ultra- strong but light fibres to be made from carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are tubes of carbon atoms, not unlike a single, perfectly round tube of chicken wire. They have incredible strength. An individual carbon nanotube, a few billionths of a metre across, has a demonstrated strength in tension higher than any known substance. The new process is a major step in applying such an astounding property to a useful material such as a fibre. Fibres made from carbon nanotubes also conduct electricity and have a huge range of potential applications from smart textiles to space elevator cables.

Space scientists have for some time considered the possibility of tethering satellites to earth and of space elevator cables to transport materials, power or even people to space. The potential properties of carbon nanotube fibres mean that space scientists are watching their development to see if they could provide the key to realising these ideas. More down-to-earth applications include lightweight, flexible, bullet-proof body armour and new means of electrical power transmission.

Although carbon nanotubes were first discovered in 1991, spinning them into useful fibres has proved difficult and extremely costly. The system being developed at the University of Cambridge is overcoming these problems. 'We are turning initial materials that cost 0.02 pence per gram into carbon nanotubes that currently retail on the research market at some £200 per gram, a mark up of a million', explains Alan Windle of Cambridge's Department of Materials Science. The process is predicted to reduce the cost of carbon nanotube based materials dramatically, making them economically viable for large-scale commercial use. 'Our system has the potential to make a major impact on technology', says Alan.