Commentary: The Future is Here!

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 07.01.2007


Why We Can't Live Without Nanotechnology, Solar Power and Carbon Fiber Mats


One of the most exciting developments in science these days is the combination of the new capabilities provided by nanotechnology [1] and new organic-based materials, such as the carbon fiber used on stealth fighters. Almost a year ago, Dovetail reported on the exciting possibilities nanotechnology offers the forest product industry. [2] There is no question of the benefits that nanotechnology will bring to both biomedical and electrical engineering. But, the potential benefit to the “green” products marketplace is virtually endless. Completely new and complex, self-assembling structural materials may be possible in the not too distant future, and new organic materials may vastly expand our ability to construct extremely strong and lightweight parts ideal for “high tech” and “low impact” products.


Imagine if you will, a factory with a ready supply of core materials that have been reduced to the molecular or even atomic level (i.e., virtually eliminating waste in production). MIT students have already demonstrated the ability to manipulate molecules to form microscopic machines, and this capacity is at the core of the construction of nannites, or microscopic machines with the ability to perform simple (so far) functions. Many people have seen the infamous “IBM” logo printed on the head of a pin, which is a demonstration of this capability. Once you have this ready supply of “materials” such as carbon, silicon, potassium, hydrogen, nitrogen and, oxygen and the ability to manipulate them at the molecular level (e.g. with nannites) you have the basis for an extremely flexible and precise manufacturing plant.


The next key from a green perspective is the development of an inexpensive, readily available, and non-destructive energy source. Today many industrial development zones around the globe are turning to wind, geo-thermal solar, and even tidal motions to generate energy. With most of the population within the middle latitudes of the planet and near a coast all options are viable, both solar and geothermal are potentially readily accessible, and solar appears to be a primary option for many areas.


So, let's assume we now have a solar powered factory with a ready supply of a variety of molecules and the nano-machines available to assemble them [3] . The next question is whether or not this whole activity can be accomplished economically.


To be commercially viable, the basic materials produced need to have either wide application or be extremely flexible in their use. Carbon fiber mats provide a great example of a product with both of these characteristics. The carbon mat started as a high tech space age material and is now showing up in house wraps and as products designed to enhance a building's ability to resist damage from natural disasters such as earthquakes.


To get into the details, the nice thing about carbon fiber materials is that a matrix of these products can be layered like a fiberglass mat, and cross-layered to gain structural strength in multiple directions. Thus, unlike steel, which tends to be homogeneous in nature and thus similar in strength in all directions, a carbon fiber product can become anisotropic, or be created to have vastly different properties in different directions thus making it more flexible in use as well as able to address extremely specialized applications. Scientists have also discovered that they can form nanotubes of carbon fiber materials that vastly increase the compression strength of a material while retaining the strength in tension. And, carbon fiber nanotubes can accomplish this at much lower weight/strength rations than steel or even aluminum. An additional benefit of this non-homogenous construction is that the “green technology factory” could even cross-link nanotubes in a variety of directions and tie tubes together with internal matrices to create the additional internal shear strength that is critically important to products molded into complex shapes, such as those involved with jet fighters and auto parts.


So, we can now easily envision a solar powered factory that is able to produce a wide range of highly complex lightweight products with great strength characteristics, extremely efficient use of materials, and virtually no waste. Sound exciting? It should be, because what we are describing is a tree!


Trees are solar powered factories that basically take carbon and oxygen from the air, mix it with water and minerals from the soil and manufacture them into a complex carbon fiber nanotube structure that is lightweight and amongst the strongest building materials on earth. The nannites in this case are the living cells in the meristematic or cambial regions of the tree. The more we use a tree's carbon fiber material in its original form (e.g. lumber) the more we take advantage of the factory's (tree's) inherent benefits. The more we add external activities to the manufacturing process (e.g. chemical or mechanical processing to make pulp and paper) the greater the weight of environmental impacts external to the tree become.


So the future is now. We have the greatest and greenest material on earth readily available today! Maybe it is simply mislabeled? Perhaps it is a marketing thing? Hey, I've got the latest, greenest complex carbon fiber based product available on the market today, manufactured in solar powered factories by nanobots. We call it…. Wood.


Dr. Jeff Howe

July 2007


[1] Nanotechnology deals with devices generally less than 100 nanometers in size. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
[2] See Nanotechnology and the Forest Products Industry: Exciting New Possibilities . Dovetail Report. 26 Sept 2006.
[3] Of course environmentally friendly chemical processes would supplement these nano-machines activities as well.