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A nanotechnology award for NASA

NASA is rarely associated with nanotechnologies. But one of its researchers working at the NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center just received a Nanotech Briefs Nano 50 award for a manufacturing process for high-quality carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Because of its ability to produce bundles of CNTs without using a metal catalyst, this method is simpler, safer, and cheaper than current ones. The CNTs produced by this process are also purer and well suited for medical applications.

NASA is rarely associated with nanotechnologies. But one of its researchers working at the NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center just received a Nanotech Briefs Nano 50 award for a manufacturing process for high-quality carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Because of its ability to produce bundles of CNTs without using a metal catalyst, this method is simpler, safer, and cheaper than current ones. The CNTs produced by this process are also purer and well suited for medical applications.

CNTs manufactured at NASA

The picture above shows single-walled carbon nanotubes manufactured at NASA without using metal catalysts. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

This method has been pioneered by now-retired NASA Goddard researcher Jeanette Benavides. She received her award on November 14, 2007 during the The National Nano Engineering Conference 2007 (NNEC) held in Boston on November 14 and 15. Here is the full list of winners. Benavides presented earlier her method in a session about Nanomaterial Fabrication and Manufacturing. The name of her paper was "The Road to An Invention: Synthesis of Soluble SWCNT's w/o a Metal Catalyst" and here is the abstract. "The steps toward the discovery of this process will be discussed along with a description of the process and properties of the single walled carbon nanotubes produced. These properties include solubility in acetone and alcohol, and assembly into three dimensional structures. Potential applications will also be discussed."

So how does her manufacturing process work? "The key innovation in the process patented by NASA Goddard is its ability to produce bundles of CNTs without using a metal catalyst. Most single-walled CNT (SWCNT) manufacturing methods -- chemical vapor deposition, laser ablation, microwave, and high-pressure carbon monoxide conversion—use a metal catalyst to encourage carbon to grow in nanotube form without capping. Because Goddard’s process does not use a metal catalyst, no metal particles need to be removed from the final product, yielding a significantly better product in terms of quality and purity at a dramatically lower cost." You'll find additional details on another NASA page about "producing lower cost single-walled carbon nanotubes without metal catalysts."

Besides medical applications, this method could be used in "applications where high strength and electrical conductivity are desired, since high purity enhances these characteristics." And "SWCNTs made with this process could be integrated into a polymer to result in a fiberglass-type material that is as strong as steel but with one-sixth the weight."

This technology has been actively marketed since last year by Goddard's Innovative Partnership Program (IPP) Office. For more information, you can read this IPP page about "Low-Cost, High-Quality Carbon Nanotubes Enter the Marketplace." You might also want to look at two previous NASA news releases, "NASA Works With New Company to Bring Nanotube Technology to the Commercial Marketplace" (November 7, 2006) and "NASA Nanotechnology Comes to Market" (November 14, 2006).

Sources: Rob Gutro, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, November 14, 2007; and various websites

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