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Carbon Nanotube Research Leads Sustainable Materials Revolution

As part of the journey towards sustainable materials research, Rice University has been granted $4.1 million to enhance carbon nanotube (CNT) synthesis, a critical component in the transition to green energy. This collaboration, jointly funded by The Kavli Foundation and Rice’s Carbon Hub, aims to provide sustainable alternatives to materials heavily reliant on traditional industry.

Carbon Nanotube Research Leads Sustainable Materials Revolution

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This funding is part of its Nanoscience for Sustainability program, which seeks to unlock technologies of the future through innovation in materials research.

The energy transition is primarily a material transition... Renewable energy and electrification have a much larger material footprint than their counterpart fossil-based technologies. We need to break out of the current mindset that the energy systems of the future can be built with materials developed before chemistry became a mature science. We can now do this because we can control the structure and properties of solid carbon with an unprecedented degree of precision.

Matteo Pasquali, Carbon Hub, Rice University

Carbon Nanotubes

Over 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions stem from the production of steel, aluminum, and copper, materials that are in high demand. Thus, to meet net-zero targets, there is a need to triple the size of the electricity grid, which would necessitate hundreds of millions of tons of these durable and conductive materials, among other applications.

While substantial efforts are being made to lower emissions in metal manufacturing, an intriguing possibility lies in substituting these metals with a sustainable alternative: carbon nanotubes (CNTs).

When effectively synthesized and assembled, carbon nanotube fibers exhibit strengths comparable to steel and conductivity akin to copper. This positions them as a promising and sustainable alternative to traditional materials commonly used in infrastructure.

However, currently, the raw materials required for manufacturing nanotubes, such as natural gas and other hydrocarbons, which are abundantly available, and are primarily being burnt as fuels.

As global energy trends shift towards non-carbon sources, these resources could be redirected to produce nanotubes on a large scale, replacing dirtier materials and generating clean hydrogen as a byproduct.

However, before this carbon nanotube revolution can be realized, additional research is still required.

A Multidisciplinary CNT Synthesis Project

In May 2023, a meeting was held by the Kavli Foundation, where experts from diverse fields collaborated to create a strategy for overcoming current scientific barriers to the scalable application of carbon nanotubes. 

It was observed that traditional studies on carbon nanotube synthesis have predominantly employed reductionist methods, focusing intensively on individual processes. While this approach has yielded progress, a broader, more integrated method might accelerate advancements by elucidating the interplay between physical and chemical processes.

This realization played a pivotal role in securing funding for Rice's current research project, which is regarded as "important high-risk, high-reward research."

This project is timely and important. The fundamental nanoscience research we are supporting today could eventually help unlock a completely new solution to a vexing sustainability puzzle: the inherent emissions from making steel and other metals. The project also enables the development of new experimental and theoretical methods with wide-ranging applications in nanomaterials, energy, and more.

Jeff Miller, Nanoscience Program Officer, The Kavli Foundation

Established in 2000, The Kavli Foundation has emerged as a leading institution in promoting scientific advancements. Guided by its mission "to advance science for the benefit of humanity," the Kavli Foundation actively supports basic research across four key domains: astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. It achieves this through strategic partnerships, initiatives, and portfolios aimed at expanding the current boundaries of scientific knowledge.

The grant will facilitate research into the intricate processes that lead to the formation of carbon nanotubes, enabling the team to eventually refine the production process to ensure the consistent creation of superior carbon nanotubes.

The research project led by Matteo Pasquali and supported by The Kavli Foundation and Rice’s Carbon Hub is not just a venture in advanced material science; it is a stride towards a greener, more sustainable future.

By focusing on the scalable synthesis of carbon nanotubes, the project aims to replace traditional, emission-intensive materials like steel, aluminum, and copper with CNTs. The successful large-scale production of these nanotubes, known for their remarkable strength and conductivity, could thus revolutionize various industries, from infrastructure to energy.

References and Further Reading

  1. Kavli Exploration Award backs Rice-led Sustainable Carbon Materials Research (2023) Rice News | News and Media Relations | Rice University. Available at: https://news.rice.edu/news/2023/kavli-exploration-award-backs-rice-led-sustainable-carbon-materials-research (Accessed: 28 November 2023).
  2. Carbon nanotubes and the sustainability puzzle (2023) The Kavli Foundation. Available at: https://www.kavlifoundation.org/news/carbon-nanotubes-and-the-sustainability-puzzle (Accessed: 28 November 2023).
  3. Carbon hub (2023) Carbon Hub | Rice University. Available at: https://carbonhub.rice.edu/ (Accessed: 28 November 2023).
Bethan Davies

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Bethan Davies

Bethan has just graduated from the University of Liverpool with a First Class Honors in English Literature and Chinese Studies. Throughout her studies, Bethan worked as a Chinese Translator and Proofreader. Having spent five years living in China, Bethan has a profound interest in photography, travel and learning about different cultures. She also enjoys taking her dog on adventures around the Peak District. Bethan aims to travel more of the world, taking her camera with her.

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