US Air Force reveals plans for ‘Iron Man’ flight suits that use carbon fiber to store power
- The radical military uniforms could store power for soldiers to charge gadgets
- Would mean dumping the heavy batteries soldiers currently carry
- Could be used to power lights, night-vision and communications gear
The Air Force Research Laboratory is working with engineers at the University of Cincinnati to develop radical new clothing that can charge your cell phone.
Researchers are developing a plethora of carbon technology, including ‘Iron Man’ suits that can store power in carbon nanotubes.
They say the technology could revolutionise everything from clothing to warplanes.
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The team say their work could one day lead to ‘Iron Man’ suits that can store power in carbon nanotubes
WHAT ARE CARBON NANOTUBES?
A carbon nanotube is an incredibly small tube-shaped material made of carbon.
A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.
A carbon nanotube can be as thin as a few nanometers yet be as long as hundreds of microns, and if it were the same width as a human hair, would be over 40 meters long.
Researchers ‘grow’ nanotubes on quarter-sized silicon wafers under heat in a vacuum chamber through a process called chemical vapor deposition.
They then stretch the little fibrous square over an industrial spool in the lab, turning the tiny sheet of carbon becomes a spun thread that resembles spider’s silk that can be woven into textiles.
‘It’s exactly like a textile,’ UC professor Vesselin Shanov, who co-directs UC’s Nanoworld Laboratories, said.
‘We can assemble them like a machine thread and use them in applications ranging from sensors to track heavy metals in water or energy storage devices, including super capacitors and batteries.’
For the military, this could mean replacing heavy batteries that charge the growing number of electronics that make up a soldier’s loadout: lights, night-vision and communications gear.
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UC graduate student Mark Haase demonstrates the conductivity of carbon nanotube fiber in a battery-powered light
‘As much as one-third of the weight they carry is just batteries to power all of their equipment,’ Graduate student Mark Haase, who has spent the past year exploring applications for carbon nanotubes at the Air Force Research Lab of Wright-Patterson, said.
‘So even if we can shave a little off that, it’s a big advantage for them in the field.’
However, the technology is still too expensive for widespread use.
‘We’re working with clients who care more about performance than cost. But once we perfect synthesis, scale goes up considerably and costs should drop accordingly,’ Haase said.
‘Then we’ll see carbon nanotubes spread to many, many more applications.’
For now, UC’s lab can produce about 50 yards of carbon nanotube thread at a time for its research.
‘Most large-scale textile machines need miles of thread,’ Haase said. ‘We’ll get there.’
‘There is still a lot of work to be done in scaling up the process,’ said Benji Maruyama, who leads the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Researchers ‘grow’ nanotubes on quarter-sized silicon wafers under heat in a vacuum chamber through a process called chemical vapor deposition. They then stretch the little fibrous square over an industrial spool in the lab, turning the tiny sheet of carbon becomes a spun thread that resembles spider’s silk that can be woven into textiles.
‘Pulling a carbon nanotube fiber off a silicon disk is good for lab-scale research but not for making an airplane wing or flight suit,’ Maruyama said.
‘The only thing holding us back is cracking the code on making carbon nanotubes at scale,’ he said.
Maruyama is trying to solve that problem with a series of experiments he is conducting using an autonomous research robot called ARES.
The robot designs and conducts experiments with carbon nanotubes, analyzes the results and then uses that data and artificial intelligence to redefine parameters for the next experiment.
In this way, it can conduct 100 times as many experiments in the same time as human researchers, he said.
UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science has a five-year agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct research that can enhance military technology applications.
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