March 19, 2009
Posted: 03:01 PM ET
What can operate in temperatures above the melting point of iron (1,538 degrees Celsius) and below the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Celsius)?
A sheet strip of carbon nanotube aerogel: The muscles of the future? Courtesy University of Texas
Answer: Artificial muscles made up of carbon nanotubes.
I'm sure that was the first thing that came to mind, right?
This is the latest innovation coming out of the field of carbon nanotechnology.
The application of these microscopic carbon tube structures has piqued the interest of many engineers and scientists in recent years. Individual carbon nanotubes can measure in at roughly 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, don't let their size fool you.
They can be as stiff as steel and can have very high thermal and electrical conductivities. But getting them to work in tandem with each other has been a challenge for scientists.
Using a material called aerogel (a type of gel in which the liquid portion has been replaced with gas to create a low-density solid), researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas' Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute have found a way to make carbon nanotubes work together in extreme temperatures - such as those found in space. Their findings will be published in this week's Science journal.
These carbon nanotube sheets or aerogels have properties unlike any other raw material. Individual carbon nanotubes have been woven together to make interconnected bundles that collectively give the sheet its unique properties. By injecting charges into the carbon nanotube sheet, scientists create repulsion between the individual nanotubes, causing the material to contract.
Artificial muscles have similarities to human muscles but are usually electroactive polymers whose shape can be modified when voltage is applied. These artificial muscles are capable of providing 30 times the force and contracting 1,000 times faster than human skeletal muscles.
"My guess is that this story will have a happy ending in terms of new products that benefit humankind," said Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the NanoTech Institute.
The applications of these artificial muscles stretches far beyond the walls of the lab. You can expect to see them at work someday in medical devices, fuel cells, aerospace and even robots.
- Azadeh Ansari, CNN.com
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