Florida State University reports development of highly conductive, high-strength buckypaper

FSU's High-Performance Materials Institute has developed a new buckypaper that is extremely strong and highly conductive — and might have application in composites-based aerostructure lightning strike protection.

Florida State University’s High-Performance Materials Institute (HPMI, Tallahassee, Fla., USA) reports that has developed a new high-performance composite material that could be up to 10 times lighter and 250 times stronger than steel, twice as hard as diamond and highly conductive to electricity and heat.

The High-Performance Materials Institute’s research has focused on development of buckypaper, and has reportedly already shown promise in a variety of real-world applications. In aerospace applications, the buckypaper could replace the current metal mesh used in the structure of the composite aircraft to disperse lightning strikes. Replacing the metal with buckypaperwould allow lightning’s electrical charge to flow around the plane and dissipate without causing damage. Buckypaper could also make aerostructures stronger and lighter for increasing payloads and improving fuel efficiency.

Made of nanotubes, one of the most thermally conductive materials known, buckypaper might lend itself to the development of heat sinks, enabling computers and other electronic equipment to disperse heat more efficiently than what is currently possible. And if exposed to an electric charge, buckypaper films could illuminate computer and television screens. When compared to cathode ray tube and liquid crystal display technology, these screens could be lighter, more energy efficient as well as feature a more uniform level of brightness.

Furthermore, buckypaper is flame retardant and could help prevent fires on aircraft, ships and other structures. Other applications include protective gear, such as helmets and body armor for the military and police, as well as prosthetics for wounded soldiers.

According to HPMI, to the naked eye buckypaper looks like ordinary carbon paper, but under a microscope, one can see it is made from tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than human hair. When sheets of buckypaper are stacked together to become part of a composite structure, it can transform into one of the strongest materials known to man.

Right now, HPMI is producing buckypaper at only a fraction of its potential strength, in small quantities and at a high price. Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley first produced buckypaper during the 1990s by filtering a nanotube suspension in order to prepare samples for various tests. The High-Performance Materials Institute has spent the past several years building upon this work, making buckypapers larger and more multifunctional for composite fabrication and achieving several patents for its efforts.

According to Frank Allen, operations director at HPMI, when he joined the institute in 2001, the facility was producing buckypaper at the size of a quarter, and now it is making much larger sheets using a batch production process.

In an attempt to make buckypaper more commercially feasible, HPMI is looking to scale up its production by working on a prototype that would produce buckypaper strips at a rate of 5 ft/min.