New ORNL carbon composite holds promise for bionics

April 22, 2010

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., April 22, 2010 -- Mimicking the human nervous system for bionic applications could become a reality with the help of a method developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to process carbon nanotubes.

While these nanostructures have electrical and other properties that make them attractive to use as artificial neural bundles in prosthetic devices, the challenge has been to make bundles with enough fibers to match that of a real neuron bundle. With current technology, the weight alone of wires required to match the density of receptors at even the fingertips would make it impossible to accommodate. Now, by adapting conventional glass fiber drawing technology to process carbon nanotubes into multichannel assemblies, researchers believe they are on a path that could lead to a breakthrough.

"Our goal is to use our discovery to mimic nature's design using artificial sensors to effectively restore a person's ability to sense objects and temperatures," said Ilia Ivanov, a researcher in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences Division. Ivanov and colleagues at ORNL recently published a paper in Nanotechnology that outlines the method of processing loose carbon nanotubes into a bundle with nearly 20,000 individual channels.

Ultimately, the goal is to duplicate the function of a living system by combining the existing technology of glass fiber drawing with the multi-functionality of sub-micron (0.4 micron) scale carbon nanotubes, according to Ivanov, who described the process.

"We make this material in a way similar to what you may have done in high school when making a glass capillary over a Bunsen burner," Ivanov said. "There, you would take the glass tube, heat it up and pull, or draw, as soon as the glass became soft."

Ivanov and John Simpson of the Measurement Science and Systems Engineering Division are doing something similar except they use thousands of glass tubes filled with carbon nanotube powder. After several draw cycles, they demonstrated that they could make fibers just four times thicker than a human hair containing 19,600 sub-micron channels with each channel filled with conducting carbon. Each carbon nanotube-containing channel is electrically insulated from its neighbors by glass so it can be used as an individual communication channel.

With this achievement, the researchers are moving closer to realizing one of their goals.

"The human hand has a density of receptors at the fingertips of about 2,500 per square centimeter and about 17,000 tactile receptors in the hand," Ivanov said. "So in terms of density of channels, we are already in the range needed for 17,000 receptors in the hand."

This multichannel composite has many other potential uses, including in aeronautics and space applications, where low weight of conducting wires is important,

The next steps are to make these channels highly conductive and then show sensor communication through individual channels.
-end-
Other authors of the Nanotechnology paper, which was published in February, are Troy Hendricks and Daniel Schaeffer of the Measurement Science and Systems Engineering Division and Paul Menchhofer of the Materials Science and Technology Division. Initial carbon nanotube research was funded by the Scientific User Facilities Division, DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Processing research was sponsored by the ORNL Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

The Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at ORNL is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale, supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE's Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit http://nano.energy.gov.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

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DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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