Making better planes and space shuttles from nanotube composites

Researchers from Binghamton University claim that boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs) could help build better fighter planes and space shuttles.

"We think that this could be the first step in a process that changes the way we design and make materials that affect the future of travel on this planet and exploration of other worlds beyond our own," said Changhong Ke, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Binghamton University's Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Prof Ke's group found that BNNTs in polymethyl metacrylate (PMMA) form much stronger interfaces than comparable carbon tubes with the same polymer and BNNT-epoxy interfaces are even stronger. This means that a larger load can be transferred from the polymer to the nanotubes, a critical characteristic for superior mechanical performance of composite materials. Future airplane wings and spacecraft hulls built of those BNNT composite materials could be lighter and more fuel efficient, while maintaining the strength needed to withstand the rigors of flight.

Prof Ke’s team extracted single BNNTs from a piece of epoxy and then repeated the process with PMMA inside an electron microscope. Their conclusions were based on the amount of force needed to do the extractions. BNNTs are said to be an ideal building material for spacecraft as they are more chemically and thermally stable, and can shield space radiation better than the more common carbon nanotubes.

"They are both light and strong," Prof Ke said of the two kinds of tubes. "They have similar mechanical properties, but different electrical properties. Those differences help to add strength to the BNNT interfaces with the polymers."

In September, Prof Ke and his collaborators received three years of additional funding totalling $815,000 from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research – Low Density Materials Programme to continue their research.

Author
Tom Austin-Morgan

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