Nanotubes are tiny cylinders of carbon atoms, thousands of times smaller than a single human hair. They are stronger and lighter than steel, more conductive than copper and have thermal properties that are competitive with diamonds.
Efficient and low cost carbon nanotubes would usher in a quiet revolution. The supermaterial has applications with nearly every piece of technology that an average person uses. Touch-screens, computer chips, and even water-filters could benefit from nanotubes.
"During the course of your day, you're never going to be more than two feet away from a material where carbon nanotubes can't transform the properties of that material," Assistant Professor Cary Pint said.
Pint is part of the team that discovered the new process. He says the value of nanotubes comes from their unique physical characteristics.
The reason they aren't being used in commercial products? They are very expensive.
"We've been saying we're two years away from carbon nanotubes changing the world for twenty years," member of the research team Anna Douglas said. "The reality is people have made incremental changes to the way we manufacture these materials and that's made the price go down a little bit over time."
High quality nanotubes cost upto a $100 per gram. Cheaper options do exist, but the so-called dirty tubes don't have the same valuable properties.
Not only is the traditional process to create nanotubes expensive, it takes a toll on the environment too. Producing the cylinders at bulk-scale requires a lot of energy and releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
But the process that Vanderbilt researchers discovered solves both problems. It pulls carbon dioxide from the air to grow nanotubes more efficiently.
"Carbon dioxide, it's everywhere. We're trying to find ways to get rid of it," Douglas said. "Why not make it into a useful material?"
Pint and Douglas have a pending patent on the process and have received funding from the Department of Energy to create nanotubes on a larger scale.