NASA’s Nanotubes

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Have you seen those really light bike frames and tennis rackets? Do you know how they are made? They are created by using carbon fibers. Nanotubes are grown in a laboratory using carbon to create what is commonly known as carbon fibers. This technology is expensive, but also yields products that are incredibly durable and very light.

NASA is using this same technology to do nanofabrication for a number of instruments. Let’s take for example a telescope. The inside of the telescope is painted black to eliminate the light that is reflecting through the lens. Even with the blackest paint there still is some light that reflects and can cause inaccurate readings. NASA is dubbing the use of this nanotechnology to make things even darker, “super black.”

NASA will be nanofabricating through the blending of two technologies– growing carbon fibers and atomic layer disposition (ALD). Using these two technologies will allow NASA to create complex parts for optical instruments. Super black technology absorbs up to 99% of ultraviolet, visible and IR light and works by trapping light between tiny gaps in the nanotubes and keeps it from reflecting.

Before nanotubes can be grown they must first have a uniform foundation to grow on. Scientists create this layer by using a reactor chamber and pulsing different types of gases through the use of ALD. This process creates an ultra thin film with layers as thick as a single atom. From here the carbon fiber tubes are grown through a process of high heat (over 1800 F) and some carbon feedstock gas.

To make this whole process happen, a controlled environment is often required. Controlled environments are also known as clean rooms. Clean rooms employ a host of measures to keep the room free of dust, contaminates and particulates. Depending on how clean the room needs to be, clean room operators may be required to don a full set of protective clothing. This may include Tyvek overalls, gloves, booties and face masks.

NASA is currently growing carbon fibers at its Goddard Center, as well as working with a partnership at the University of Maryland. This exciting new technology that blends atomic layer disposition and the use of carbon fibers will allow NASA to make instruments that are far more sensitive without creating larger instruments. As with anything sent into space, the larger it is the more expensive it is to transport. By having the ability to create smaller, more efficient instruments, NASA can greatly save on future costs.