Rice University to build quantum wires for NASA

HOUSTON, Texas, 25 April 2005. NASA has awarded Rice University's Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory a four-year, $11 million contract to produce a prototype power cable made entirely of carbon nanotubes.

HOUSTON, Texas, 25 April 2005. NASA has awarded Rice University's Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory a four-year, $11 million contract to produce a prototype power cable made entirely of carbon nanotubes.

The project aims to pioneer methods of producing pure nanotube power cables, known as quantum wires, which may conduct electricity up to 10 times better than copper and weigh about one-sixth as much. Such technologies may advance NASA's plans to return humans to the moon and eventually travel to Mars and beyond.

The contract was awarded by NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. It calls for an additional $4 million in related research at JSC, where researchers will conduct crucial work in the area of nanotube growth, and at NASA's Glenn Research Center, where nanotube composites will be developed for fuel cell components.

Rice's portion of the funding includes support for collaborative projects at Houston-based Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., which specializes in large- scale nanotube production; GHG Corp.; Duke University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

"In the Space Shuttle, the primary power distribution system accounts for almost 7 percent of the craft's weight," said Richard Smalley, director of the Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory (CNL). "To support additional instrumentation and broadband communications, NASA's next generation of human and robotic spacecraft will need far more power. For ships assembled in orbit, a copper power distribution system could wind up accounting for one-quarter the weight of the vessel."

The contract calls for CNL to provide NASA a one-meter prototype of a quantum wire by 2010. This will require major breakthroughs in the production and processing of nanotubes. Notably, a way has yet to be found to produce a specific type of nanotube, and of the hundreds of types available, only about 2 percent are pure metals. These metallic tubes -- also known as "armchair" nanotubes -- are the only types that conduct electricity well enough for quantum wires.

"We need to find a way to make just the nanotubes we want, and we need them in large quantities," said CNL Executive Director Howard Schmidt. "Another major focus of the research will be finding new ways to combine armchair nanotubes, which are single molecules just a billionth of a meter wide, into large-scale fibers and wires."

"Technology advances like these are exactly what will be needed to realize the future of space exploration," said Jefferson D. Howell, Jr., director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "We are extremely fortunate to be able to pool the unique expertise available at JSC, Rice and the other collaborators in this effort."

For more information, see www.nasa.gov.

More in Home