[Paleopsych] Usatoday: Nanotech researchers report big breakthrough

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Nanotech researchers report big breakthrough

An advance in nanotechnology may lead to the creation of artificial muscles, 
superstrong electric cars and wallpaper-thin electronics, researchers report.

Nanotechnology has tantalized researchers for decades, promising a new era in 
stronger and lighter electronic materials. Nanotechnology is the science of 
engineering such properties at the molecular, or nanometer, scale. For all its 
promise, the technology has mostly been locked in laboratories.

In Friday's edition of the journal Science, however, scientists from the 
University of Texas and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial 
Research Organization report the creation of industry-ready sheets of materials 
made from nanotubes. Nanotubes are tiny carbon tubes with remarkable strength 
that are only a few times wider than atoms. They can also act as the 
semiconductors found in modern electronics.

"This is fundamentally a new material," says team leader Ray Baughman of the 
University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson.

. Self-supporting, transparent and stronger than steel or high-strength 
plastics, the sheets are flexible and can be heated to emit light. . A square 
mile of the thinnest sheets, about 2-millionths-of-an-inch thick, would weigh 
only about 170 pounds.

. In lab tests, the sheets demonstrated solar cell capabilities, using sunlight 
to produce electricity.

The team has developed an automated process that produced 2 ¾-inch-wide strips 
of nanotubes at a rate of about 47 feet per minute. Other methods take much 
longer to create nanotube sheets.

"The technique is most elegant and the applications they've shown are quite 
impressive," says nanotube expert Shalom Wind of Columbia University in New 
York. Industry and academic researchers are already regarding nanotubes with 
avid interest, he adds.

Future applications that scientists have discussed include creating artificial 
muscles whose movement is electrically charged, or race cars with stronger, 
lighter bodies that could also serve as batteries, says chemist Andrew Barron 
of Rice University in Houston.

"We could see this on Formula 1 (racing) cars by next season, says Barron. 
"This is a jumping-off point for a technology a lot of people will pursue."

Wind is more cautious about the future. "We'll really have to wait to see the 
impact this has and whether it will pan out in commercial technology."

The federal government has made nanotechnology a research priority in recent 
years. Funding for the scientists' research came from the Defense Department, 
the Texas government and a partnership of nanotechnology labs.

The research team suggests first using the nanotube sheets as transparent 
antennae for cars or as electrically heated windows. "We do need to think of a 
catchier name than 'nanotube sheets,' " Baughman says.

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