New Carbon Nanotube Super-Rubber Could Be Used For Sneakers And Spacecraft

Viscoelastic Flubber

Photograph of the flexible carbon nanotube material. Scale bar equals 1mm.Courtesy Science/AAAS

Japanese researchers have developed a new viscoelastic super-rubber, a carbon nanotube-based material that flows like honey, stretches like elastic and can survive a huge range of temperatures.

Normally, viscoelastic materials, like foam earplugs and mattresses, perform well in moderate temperatures — but they break down when they get too hot and harden when they get too cold. Silicone rubber hardens into glass around 575 degrees F, for instance. The new material deforms under extreme temperatures, but it maintains its strength and quickly recovers its shape. To test its mettle, the researchers let it sit at room temperature, blasted it with a butane torch and froze it with liquid nitrogen. It withstands temperatures from –320 F to 1,832 F, according to the study, which is published today in the journal Science.

This exceptional range could be used to build anything from spacecraft to sneaker shock absorbers, notes Yury Gogotsi, a nanotechnologist at Drexel University who wrote a Perspective in Science to accompany the research.

The new material is made of a random network of interconnected single-, double- and triple-walled nanotubes — the researchers say the random connections are analogous to a clump of hair. Each carbon nanotube makes connections with numerous other carbon nanotubes. The researchers think its incredible flexibility stems from the entangled network of connections, which work like springs creating elasticity, and from energy dissipation through the zipping and unzipping of carbon nanotubes at these points of contact.

It's still prohibitively expensive to produce the super-rubber for mass consumption, Gogotsi said. But someday, it could be used to make wrinkle-free fabrics, electricity-harvesting shoes and new spacecraft materials.