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Future planes, cars may be made of light but strong ‘buckypaper’

By Bill Kaczor  /  AP , TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA

It’s called “buckypaper” and looks a lot like ordinary carbon paper, but don’t be fooled by the cute name or flimsy appearance. It could revolutionize the way everything from airplanes to TVs are made.

Buckypaper is 10 times lighter but potentially 500 times stronger than steel when sheets of it are stacked and pressed together to form a composite. Unlike conventional composite materials, though, it conducts electricity like copper or silicon and disperses heat like steel or brass.

“All those things are what a lot of people in nanotechnology have been working toward as sort of Holy Grails,” said Wade Adams, a scientist at Rice University.

That idea — that there is great future promise for buckypaper and other derivatives of the ultra-tiny cylinders known as carbon nanotubes — has been floated for years now. However, researchers at Florida State University say they have made important progress that may soon turn hype into reality.

Buckypaper is made from tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. Because of its unique properties, it is envisioned as a wondrous new material for light, energy-efficient aircraft and automobiles, more powerful computers, improved TV screens and many other products.

So far, buckypaper can be made at only a fraction of its potential strength, in small quantities and at a high price. The Florida State researchers are developing manufacturing techniques that soon may make it competitive with the best composite materials now available.

“If this thing goes into production, this very well could be a very, very game-changing or revolutionary technology to the aerospace business,” said Les Kramer, chief technologist for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, which is helping fund the Florida State research.

The scientific discovery that led to buckypaper virtually came from outer space.

In 1985, British scientist Harry Kroto joined researchers at Rice University for an experiment to create the same conditions that exist in a star. They wanted to find out how stars, the source of all carbon in the universe, make the element that is a main building block of life.

Everything went as planned with one exception.

“There was an extra character that turned up totally unexpected,” recalled Kroto, now at Florida State heading a program that encourages the study of math, science and technology in public schools. “It was a discovery out of left field.”

The surprise guest was a molecule with 60 carbon atoms shaped like a soccer ball. To Kroto, it also looked like the geodesic domes promoted by Buckminster Fuller, an architect, inventor and futurist.

That inspired Kroto to name the new molecule buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyballs” for short.

For their discovery of the buckyball — the third form of pure carbon to be discovered after graphite and diamonds — Kroto and his Rice colleagues, Robert Curl Jr and Richard Smalley, were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.

Separately, Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima developed a tube-shaped variation while doing research at Arizona State University.

Researchers at Smalley’s laboratory then inadvertently found that the tubes would stick together when disbursed in a liquid suspension and filtered through a fine mesh, producing a thin film — buckypaper.

The secret of its strength is the huge surface area of each nanotube, said Ben Wang, director of Florida State’s High-Performance Materials Institute.

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