Unfortunately, carbon nanotubes are also the prima donna of nanomaterials; they are difficult to work with, despite their exquisite potential. For starters, finding the means to produce bulk quantities of nanotubes took almost a decade. Scientists also learned early on that there were several dozen types of nanotubes -- each with unique material and electrical properties; and engineers have yet to find a way to produce just one type. Instead, all production methods yield a hodgepodge of types, often in hairball-like clumps.
Creating large-scale objects from these clumps of nanotubes has been a challenge. A threadlike fiber that is less than one-quarter the thickness of a human hair will contain tens of millions of nanotubes packed side by side. Ideally, these nanotubes will be perfectly aligned -- like pencils in a box -- and tightly packed. Some labs have explored means of growing such fibers whole, but the production rates for these "solid-state" fibers have proven quite slow compared with fiber-production methods that rely on a chemical process called "wet spinning." In this process, clumps of raw nanotubes are dissolved in a liquid and squirted through tiny holes to form long strands.
Shortly after arriving at Rice in 2000, Pasquali began studying CNT wet-spinning methods with the late Richard Smalley, a nanotechnology pioneer and the namesake of Rice's Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. In 2003, two years before his untimely death, Smalley worked with Pasquali and colleagues to create the first pure nanotube fibers. The work established an industrially relevant wet-spinning process for nanotubes that was analogous to the methods used to create high-performance aramid fibers -- like Teijin's Twaron -- which are used in bulletproof vests and other produc
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