Even stronger than a radial tyre? There is every indication that TUBALL carbon nanotubes will revolutionise tyre chemistry even more than silica did in the 1990s and be even more significant than the invention of radial tyres after WWII. Even the tiniest amount of these small tubes, which have a diameter of just 1 nm (one-billionth of a metre) and a wall thickness of one (!) carbon atom, improve tyre characteristics to a mind-blowing extent. The history of the invention is equally remarkable; moreover, it comes from the heart of Siberia.
In 1945, after the nuclear bombs, society realised that matter holds massive amounts of energy, but it is difficult to retrieve it. The necessity to work at an atomic level makes carbon nanotubes extraordinary and, at the same time, difficult to synthesise.You cannot examine an advanced technology such as this without the appropriate background, even if you think you know what carbon is. It was probably more than 500 000 years ago when our ancestors began to use charcoal for heating and cooking, but it has been less than three centuries since coal and the steam engine marked the beginning of industrial era. However, neither the prehistoric nor the industrial period of carbon history has anything to do with contemporary nanochemistry..
Broadly speaking, everything growing and living on earth depends on carbon, which is the basis for the chemistry of every living creature. The human body is 65% water and, therefore, is rich in oxygen (65%); carbon ranks second at 18%, then hydrogen at 10%, nitrogen at 3%, and the calcium in our bones accounts for 1.5% of our mass. Nature has more than a million different combinations of carbon and hydrogen, and hydrocarbons are our primary energy source apart from coal; in brief, carbon is irreplaceable and not an element easy to live without.
In its natural state, carbon has only two crystalline forms, which are very different from each other: diamond and graphite. The first is valuable and exceedingly rare and hard, the second is greasy to the touch and far more trivial, with its infirm and pliable appearance; its production reaches about 1.5 million tonnes per year. Few people know that diamond decays over time (a very, very long time!) and degrades to graphite, which ultimately is the most stable form of carbon. Over the centuries, we have become very familiar with this black and grey mineral that has provided us with easy-to-use writing and drawing tools – Chinese ink and pencil lead. Today, on top of everything else, it ensures safety at nuclear power stations and gives us millions of electrical batteries; it is an incontestable ancestor of all other forms of ultraeffective carbon structures that are yet to be created.Graphite’s useful lubricating properties are provided by the simplicity with which its multiple layers slide against each other; however, chemists are more concerned with its structure. These layers are flat and extremely thin, honeycomb-shaped, and consist of hexagonal rings closely fitted to each other; at the top of each there is a carbon atom connected with three of its neighbours. There are layers only one atom thick, and such a structure facilitates (although relatively) the access to carbon atoms. Although we have been aware of graphite’s enormous potential for a long time, this does not make working at the atomic level any simpler. The main pitfall is that we can only clearly examine these structures once new powerful high-resolution electron microscopes are available.
Starting out from hydrocarbons, chemists first examine carbon in terms of the simplicity with which it converts into fibre. By connecting long and flat microcrystals and aligning them in parallel lines, it is possible to synthesise fibres with a diameter of 5–10 microns. Assembling 1, 3, 6, 12, 24, 48 thousand of such carbon fibres, depending on their intended use, helps synthesise amazingly durable but lightweight threads. In order to restore theit textile industry that had been destroyed by the war, the Japanese began developing carbon fibre in 1959; the first research centre later became Toray Industries, the world leader in the industry.