Fed Grant Backs Nanofiber Development


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Rice University scientists who developed conductive fibers made entirely of carbon nanotubes will enhance their invention with the aid of a grant from the Department of Energy.

Rice University chemist Matteo Pasquali shows a spool of fiber made of carbon nanotubes. Rice has joined the Department of Energy’s Next Generation Machines: Enabling Technologies initiative and will work to increase the conductivity of the fiber for use in electric motors. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The grant for $1 million is part of the agency’s Next Generation Machines: Enabling Technologies initiative. It will help Rice Professor Matteo Pasquali and his colleagues improve on the nanotube fibers they introduced in 2013.

The grant is one of 13 awarded by the agency to improve the efficiency of electric motor components through the development of wide bandgap semiconductors, advanced magnetic materials, aggressive cooling techniques and improved conductors, especially for wind, solar, electric vehicle and battery applications.

The fibers boast high strength and conductivity and far better flexibility than metal wires. They have been investigated for use as conductive links in damaged hearts, as brain implants and for data and low-power applications. Because they are manufactured via a scalable wet-spinning process, Pasquali said they could be used in large-scale applications.

Pasquali, Rice Professor Junichiro Kono and colleagues at the University of Maryland and Dexmat, a Houston company founded by Rice alumni, will work to double the conductivity of their fiber for use in lightweight motors and generators. Meeting that goal will require a specific conductivity 33 percent better than aluminum at 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit), according to their proposal.

The researchers anticipate that will yield major savings on weight, and thus fuel economy, for cars and aerospace applications.

“Our carbon nanotube fiber technology is already at the leading edge for such new applications as medical electronics, wearables and electronic textiles,” Pasquali said. “With conductivity improvements of 20 to 30 percent, we can greatly expand the application range to include metal wire replacement for mobile applications.”

Pasquali is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, of materials science and nanoengineering, and of chemistry and chair of Rice’s Department of Chemistry. Kono is a professor of electrical and computer engineering, of physics and astronomy and of materials science and nanoengineering.

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