Dr Stephen Hawkins: optimising production of carbon nano-fibres for research
Dr Stephen Hawkins uses his knowledge of chemical synthesis, and process and equipment development for the manufacture of carbon nanotubes.
9 April 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011
Interest in carbon nanotubes exploded around the world in the early 1990s when details of their structure were revealed. These strange sub-microscopic, hollow fibres measure about a millionth of a millimetre in diameter.
They are immensely strong and have exceptional ability to conduct electricity and heat — a unique combination, even in the synthetic fibre world — and a challenge for textile technologists, who see nanotubes as much more than a scientific curiosity.
An international race began, to discover and patent applications that exploit these extraordinary properties.
The first task for anyone in the race was to devise reliable methods for making carbon nanotubes in the laboratory, or collaborate with someone who could do that.
Producing the nanotubes
Dr Hawkins has led the production program for carbon nanotubes (CNTs) at CSIRO, since the work started in 2001.
He researched the design and development of carbon nanotube production reactors, and development of the chemical and operational processes required to produce large quantities of highly defined nanotubes on a routine basis.
“There’s a nanotechnology revolution going on here”
Dr Stephen Hawkins, CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering
One production process developed by the team allows the carbon nanotubes to be drawn as a web or thread directly from the growth substrate and twisted into strong, highly conductive yarns of just two to five microns in diameter.
These threads are barely visible to the human eye. The unique process developed to accomplish this is currently being patented.
Dr Hawkins says that having established standardised production techniques for supplying carbon nanotubes with known properties, the CSIRO team is now reached the exciting stage of making products out of sheets and yarns formed from pure carbon nanotubes.
'Being able to make carbon nanotubes in our own labs means we can respond immediately if one of our collaborators asks for a product with different properties,' he says.
Dr Hawkins says CSIRO and its collaborators are investigating numerous applications across a wide spectrum of technologies.
'There’s a nanotechnology revolution going on here. We are faced with an embarrassment of riches available for the development of commercial applications,' he says.
Areas of interest and current collaboration involving the nanotube team include:
organic photovoltaic and organic light-emitting diode devices
high strength yarns and webs
high strength composites
nerve repair and replacement.
'And as we move into commercialisation, we will have a significant role in CSIRO’s new Niche Manufacturing Flagship,' Dr Hawkins says.
With university qualifications in organic chemistry and chemical engineering, Dr Hawkins describes himself as an engineering chemist, rather than a chemical engineer.
While still at school in England he read of CSIRO and was excited by the possibility of doing research in the service of society.
Before the nanotube project he investigated insecticides for termite control, and chemical processing for the leather industry.
In 2005, the CNT team was awarded an AVANTEX Innovation prize in the 'new materials' category.
The carbon nanotube team was awarded the 2005/06 Nanotechnology Victoria Prize for Nanotechnology Innovation (Industry) for developments with CNT yarns and transparent sheets/webs.
More recently the team was awarded the 2006 CSIRO Medal in the category of Research Achievement.
Find out more about Exploring applications for carbon nanotubes.