Flexible Electronic Update: Carbon Nanotubes Make for Stronger, Conductive Textiles

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CNT
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Using carbon nanotubes, researchers from the University of Illinois have synthesized textiles that offer high electrical conductivity and resilience.

Silicon-based electronics have been around for many decades. Robust and ultra-high-performing, silicon is a main component in chips, solar panels, and screens. But silicon and minerals can’t sustain the market growth for long with a predicted shift toward portable and flexible electronics.

Currently, wearables, portable devices, and smart clothes still contain fragile or brittle metal-based materials that decrease their overall efficiency. With the arrival of synthetic polymers, an alternative to the use of silicon and minerals in general appears.

Researchers at the University of Illinois design carbon-nanotube conductive textile.Click To Tweet

Unlike silicon, a mineral, polymers–molecules that make up plastics, natural fibers (cellulose), rubbers, glues, paints, and resins–are extracted from nature or synthesized in labs. At the forefront of the use of these materials are carbon nanotubes, which replicate the properties of naturally-occurring composites and polymers.

Carbon Nanotubes, one of the Nanoworld’s Wonders

Since the early 1990s, researchers have been working to develop ways to better exploit the exceptional properties of carbon nanotubes whose applications are relatively limited when compared to scientific imagination.

Carbon nanotubes (CNT) promise to bring electronics into a new “molecular” era with improved performance and low power consumption. Given their other remarkable properties, they’re leading to unexpected advances.

Rendering of a carbon nanotube, measured in the nanoscale. | NASA

Made from graphene sheets, a CNT exhibits very high tensile strength (resilience to breaking under stress), excellent thermal and electrical conductivity, as well as high flexibility and elasticity.

These properties enable the developing of the strongest fibers ever made, faster and more efficient electronic chips, superconductors, structural composites, Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), and next-gen energy storage systems.

Weaving CNT Into a Conductive Fabric

There have been some attempts to create CNT-based fabrics or films that replicate CNT properties on a smaller scale, without much success.

Now, thanks to the work of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, carbon nanotubes could finally be woven into textiles that demonstrate the desired properties.

The research team, who published a paper in Advanced Engineering Materials, synthesized CNT-based textile that is 50% more tough and conductive than copper. According to researchers, their work is the first attempt to explore the fracture energy of the CNT (the amount of energy a material dissipates during fracturing).

“Aligned carbon nanotube sheets are suitable for a wide range of applications,” said Sameh Tawfick, Assistant Professor from the MeschSE lab at Illinois, “spanning the micro- to the macro-scales including Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, supercapacitor electrodes, electrical cables, artificial muscles, and multi-functional composites.”

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