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NASA looks to carbon to lighten spacecraft

Copper wires weigh a lot, so NASA is teaming up with Rice University to develop power cables out of carbon nanotubes to lighten the load.

Copper wires weigh a lot, so NASA is teaming up with Rice University to develop power cables out of carbon nanotubes to lighten the load in spacecraft.

Under an $11 million research grant, Rice will try to come up with a way to produce specialized types of nanotubes that will measure about a meter and conduct electricity 10 times more efficiently than metal. Prototypes of the nanotubes are due in 2009.

In future spacecraft, power distribution systems might account for a quarter of the weight, said Richard Smalley, a professor at Rice who won a Nobel prize for his work with Buckyballs, carbon balls similar to nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes are the reigning celebrity in the nanotechnology world. The spools of pure carbon are light, much stronger than steel, can conduct electricity or light, bend and flex back, and be produced with conventional equipment from the chemistry industry.

The devices may, one day, be used in auto parts, semiconductors and medical devices. Smalley is an outspoken advocate for using the tubes to transmit electricity.

Unfortunately, each one has a personality of its own. Depending on the chirality, or how the carbon hexagons that make up the nanotube walls line up with each other, a nanotube can behave like a metal and conduct electricity, or it can behave like a semiconductor. To separate these different types of tubes is a manual process.

Production also remains relatively limited, so the devices are priced accordingly. On the Web site of Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., single-walled carbon nanotubes run $375 to $2,000 a gram.