Carbon nanotubes enter Tour de France

Nanotubes are helping bike designers shave weight in the cycling world's premier event. Photos: Nanotubes meet inner tubes

If Floyd Landis wins the three-week Tour de France, it will be a victory for nanotechnology too.

Landis, the leader of the Phonak team and one of the pre-race favorites, rides a bike that's been enhanced with carbon nanotubes .

Although nanotubes have previously been sprinkled into cranks and other components to reduce weight and provide additional strength, the bikes ridden by the Phonak team have nanotubes swirled into the frame--a first, according to their Swiss manufacturer, BMC.

BMC Pro

As a result, the frame of the BMC Pro Machine SLC 01 frame weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). That makes it one of the lightest frames in the race and roughly 20 percent lighter than the BMC frame ridden by the team the year before. The whole bike weighs 14.74 pounds. (The weight, though, increases with larger frame sizes and component changes.)

Developed in the early '90s, carbon nanotubes are viewed by many as something of a miracle material. Nanotubes are essentially cylinders of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons; images from electron microscopes reveal that nanotubes look like spools of chicken wire.

The unique structure, though, gives the tubes unusual properties. They are several times stronger than steel for their size (usually well under a millimeter), but far lighter. Nanotubes can also conduct electricity, act as insulators and transfer light signals.

Over the next few decades, some believe that nanotubes will carry signals inside chips, convey medicines to specific cells in the body, or make planes undetectable by radar. But right now, the main industrial use has been to strengthen and reduce weight in items like car panels, golf clubs, tennis rackets and some bike components.

The material used to make BMC's frame comes from Easton and Zyvex and is an enhanced version of standard carbon fiber. Typically, a sheet of carbon fiber, which consists of carbon strands woven into a fabric, is coated with resin. The resin that seeps into the gaps between the individual strands becomes the weakest part of the material.

Easton impregnates the resin with evenly distributed nanotubes (from Zyvex) to ameliorate the weakness. Easton already sells bike components made from the nanotube-enhanced weave.

Naturally, BMC's bike is not cheap. The bike starts at $6,597 at current exchange rates and, with all the options, can sell for as much as $8,390.

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