Rice University scientists have achieved a pivotal breakthrough in the development of a cable that will make an efficient electric grid of the future possible.
Armchair quantum wire (AQW) will be a weave of metallic nanotubes that can carry electricity with negligible loss over long distances. It will be an ideal replacement for the nation's copper-based grid, which leaks electricity at an estimated 5 percent per 100 miles of transmission, said Rice chemist Andrew R. Barron, author of a paper about the latest step forward published online by the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters.
A prime technical hurdle in the development of this "miracle cable," Barron said, is the manufacture of massive amounts of metallic single-walled carbon nanotubes, dubbed armchairs for their unique shape. Armchairs are best for carrying current, but can't yet be made alone. They grow in batches with other kinds of nanotubes and have to be separated out, which is a difficult process given that a human hair is 50,000 times larger than a single nanotube.
Barron's lab demonstrated a way to take small batches of individual nanotubes and make them dramatically longer. Ideally, long armchair nanotubes could be cut, re-seeded with catalyst and re-grown indefinitely.
The paper was written by graduate student and first author Alvin Orbaek, undergraduate student Andrew Owens and Barron, the Charles W. Duncan Jr.-Welch Professor of Chemistry and a professor of materials science.
Amplification of nanotubes was seen as a key step toward the practical manufacture of AQW by the late Rice professor, nanotechnology pioneer and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, who worked closely with Barron and Rice chemist James Tour, the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science, to lay out a path for its development.
Barron charged Orbaek with the task
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