From monitoring our heart rate and generating renewable energy to keeping astronauts safe in space, a number of novel applications for carbon nanotubes have emerged in recent months. 

Academic and industrial interest around carbon nanotubes (CNTs) continues to  increase, owing to their exceptional strength, stiffness and electronic properties.  

Over the years, this interest has mainly focused on creating products that are both stronger and lighter, for example, in the sporting goods sector, but recently many ‘quirkier’ applications are beginning to appear.

 tennis player

Carbon nanotubes are already used in sporting goods such as tennis racquets. Image: Steven Pisano/Flickr

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, for example, researchers are currently working with NASA on new types of nano sensors to keep astronauts safer in space. 

The Embry-Riddle team – along with colleagues at LUNA Innovations, a fibre-optics sensing company based in  Virginia, US – have focused on developing and refining smart material sensors that can be used to detect stress or damage in critical structures using a particular class of CNT called ‘buckypaper’.

The next step in nanotechnology | George Tulevski. Video: TED

With buckypaper, layers of nanotubes can be loosely bonded to form a paper-like thin sheet, effectively creating a layer of thousands of tiny sensors. These sensor sheets could improve the safety of future space travel via NASA’s  inflatable space habitats’ – pressurised structures capable of supporting life in  outer space – by detecting potentially damaging micrometeroroids and orbital debris (MMOD). 

CNTs coated on a large flexible membrane on an inflatable habitat, for instance, could accurately monitor strain and pinpoint impact from nearby MMODs.