“Plastics is a $300 billion U.S. industry because of the massive throughput that's possible with fluid processing,” said Rice's Matteo Pasquali, a paper co-author and professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering and in chemistry. “The reason grocery stores use plastic bags instead of paper and the reason polyester shirts are cheaper than cotton is that polymers can be melted or dissolved and processed as fluids by the train-car load. Processing nanotubes as fluids opens up all of the fluid-processing technology that has been developed for polymers.”

The new process builds upon the 2003 Rice discovery of a way to dissolve large amounts of pure nanotubes in strong acidic solvents like sulfuric acid. The research team subsequently found that nanotubes in these solutions aligned themselves, like spaghetti in a package, to form liquid crystals that could be spun into monofilament fibers about the size of a human hair.

“That research established an industrially relevant process for nanotubes that was analogous to the methods used to create Kevlar from rodlike polymers, except for the acid not being a true solvent,” said Wade Adams, director of the Smalley Institute and co-author of the new paper. “The current research shows that we have a true solvent for nanotubes – chlorosulfonic acid – which is what we set out to find when we started this project nine years ago.”

Following the 2003 breakthrough with acid solvents, the team methodically studied how nanotubes behaved in different types and concentrations of acids. By comparing and contrasting the behavior of nanotubes in acids with the literature on polymers and rodlike colloids, the team developed both the theoretical and practical tools that chemical firms will need to process nanotubes in bulk.

“Kevlar, the polymer fiber used in bulletproof vests, is about five to 10 times stronger than the strongest nanotube fibers today, but in principle the Rice scientists should be able to make their fibers about 100 times stronger. If they can realize even 20 percent of their potential, they will have a great material, perhaps the strongest ever known.