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Big hopes for little tubes

Updated: December 18, 2009 - 2:57 pm

Posted: December 11, 2009

By Michael Schwartz

michael.schwartz@insidebiz.com

Collaboration among local researchers at NASA Langley, Jefferson Lab and the National Institute of Aerospace has produced a microscopic material that at least one team member believes could be better than sliced bread.

They are called boron nitride nanotubes. Through a complex process involving a used laser bought on the cheap from Detroit, the scientists were able to fuse boron and nitrogen in a way that makes tiny tubes that are strong, highly heat-resistant and long enough to be woven into a yarn, all pointing to a potential for commercialization.

The project began with funding from NASA to look into ways to create deep space radiation shields for future spacecraft that, for example, might one day take humans to Mars.

With a few hundred thousand dollars, the team first utilized Newport News-based Jefferson Lab's Free Electron Laser, a well-known tunable laser.

Once they realized they were on to something, the team from the three Peninsula-based research facilities looked to Detroit, a city riddled with troubled manufacturers, some of which just happen to have industrial-strength lasers and an urgent need for cash.

"There are these factories closing down now so lasers are cheaper," said Michael Smith, an aerospace engineer at NASA Langley.

Often working after hours, on weekends and on vacation days, the team made the effort its pet project. The extra time has been worth it so far. The results, which produced the cotton-like yarn that Jefferson Lab researcher Kevin Jordan describes as "just like Spiderman shooting silk," will be published in the journal Nanotechnology on Dec. 16.

Smith and Jordan presented their research at a recent Materials Research Society meeting in Boston and "jaws dropped," Jordan said.

Already, unsolicited calls have come in from a lab in California that wants to attempt to use the nanotubes to produce highly heat-resistant ceramics for jet engines.

Such collaborations are the next step for the team, which also includes Cheol Park and Jae-Woo Kim from NIA.

Funding must be obtained to produce the BNNTs in larger quantities.

"We need to scale up so we can get peanut butter-size jars in researchers' hands so they can figure out where the game-changer is," Jordan said.

Examples of such game-changing uses of the material could be in the jet engine industry.

Raising the operating temperature of every jet engine in the world by a single degree Celsius could save $1 billion a year in fuel, Jordan said. Ceramics made with BNNTs in the mix can withstand up to 800 degrees and possibly 1,000 degrees Celsius, twice the threshold of predecessor carbon nanotubes.

"It may be that this is like a new day for nanotubes," Smith said.

Other potential uses include the production of synthetic muscles, advanced prosthetics and lightweight body armor. The tubes can be stretched up to 20 percent of their actual length before breaking.

Given their size - 3 nanometers wide and about 1 millimeter long, the BNNTs have potential use in the drug industry. Studies have already looked at the possibility of putting drugs in the microscopic tubes to transport them through the body or having a gene piggyback on a tube.

Desalination is also a possibility.

"The nanotube is so small you could put saltwater in one end and have fresh water come out the other end," Smith said.

Jordan wants to test these tubes out to "answer the question is this or is this not better than sliced bread?"

"I believe this material is going to be a game-changer," Jordan said. "It could have a bigger impact than Kevlar and nylon when they hit the market."

Should commercialization take off, the team and the labs involved would likely get some royalties through patents written throughout the process.

For now they will rely on purely federal funding.

Beyond that, the team would likely form some sort of separate entity to go after more private forms of capital to take it to market. But that's years down the road.

"We're not at the point where we're ready to go to a venture capitalist," Jordan said.nib i