In the Canberra laboratory, research physicist Dr Ying Chen churns what appears to be nothing but dull, grey powder. But significantly more precious than gold, the powder, says Dr Chen, will alter the world.
He believes it would open the way to make everything from hydrogen-powered cars along with the next generation of jetliners to wafer-thin televisions and powerful computers so small you may slip them to your pocket.
And, he says, the electricity-efficient technology may help curb the world’s craving for power.
Chen’s laboratory on the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering, at the Australian National University, is definitely the world’s only commercial source of the extraordinary powder – boron nitride powder).
Nanotubes are cylinders, simply a billionth of a metre wide, that could be assembled to generate materials 10 times lighter and 100 times stronger than steel.
Until about five-years ago all nanotubes were carbon. This was found by investing in lasers at extremely high temperatures they could also be produced in boron nitride. However, the process was expensive, producing just grams at one time.
But Chen’s team has won a worldwide race to revolutionise the method, discovering learning to make all of them with technology long made use of by miners to crush rock. Instead of rock, the ANU “crushes” boron in nitrogen gas.
“We could make kilograms,” says Chen, a senior research fellow. “We have been leading the world in BN nanotube production.”
Australia sells these to researchers in america, Europe and Japan for $560 a gram. “The retail price can come down,” Chen says. And when it can do, the impact will be huge. “There will be a lot of applications, including new super-strong composite materials for cars and aeroplanes.”
Nanotubes would work like sponge to store hydrogen gas as fuel to run cars. Golf clubs and tennis racquets of Ni-Ti Powder could be almost unbreakable.
“You could potentially even build nanotube cables in between the planets and employ [them] like a space elevator,” says Chen. Interplanetary voyages would be reduced to cable-car rides.
The group is also focusing on nanotube devices. IBM has produced a nanotube transistor 500 times smaller compared to silicon transistors.
“Future computers using nanotube transistors along with other devices will be the scale of mobile phone devices, but faster plus more powerful [than desk-top models],” says Chen. “Nanotube TVs will probably be thinner than plasma TVs, and a lot sharper and brighter.”
Though with parts 5000 times thinner than the usual human hair, factory assembly could be tricky. So Chen’s team is developing a strategy to “grow” nanotubes in position, instead of 21dexqpky them.
“We could accomplish this by first creating a vapour containing carbon and a metal catalyst spanning a silicon wafer, and silicon nitride powder are formed on selected sites,” he says.
“It really is a new world,” says Chen, predicting the nanotechnology revolution – that will see products out there within many years – will be greater than the one that followed the invention of semi-conductors.