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Monday, April 25, 2005

Quantum Wires: From Space to the Plains?

Earlier today it was announced that Rice University was slated to receive an $11 million grant from NASA to produce a one-meter long prototype "quantum wire" power cable for the space agency by 2009. NASA is interested in such a device because not only can quantum wires conduct electricity 10 times faster than cooper; more importantly -- at least from NASA's perspective -- is that they weigh about one-sixth as much.

The reason this is important is because today it costs approximately $10,000 to launch one pound of material into space. And with cooper wires expected to contribute close to 25% of the weight of the space craft in the future, the development of a low-weight alternative has the potential to save NASA a lot of money.

The announcement, however, is interesting for another reason. One of the companies Rice University will be partnering with is Houston-based Carbon Nanotechnologies. This is the company that was founded by Nobel-Prize winning chemist, Richard Smalley.

In the past, Smalley has spoken of the long-term potential of "quantum wires." These wires -- which would be constructed out of carbon nanotubes and be only abut one centimeter in diameter -- can theoretically transmit 1 terawatt of energy. More specifically, Smalley has spoken publicly of how these "quantum wires" might someday replace the wires that line today's archaic and inefficient electrical utility transmission system.

Obviously, 2009 is still a few years off and it is a stretch to go from producing a one-meter "quantum wire" to a quantum wire that stretches from, say, a massive solar farm in the American southwest to towns and cities all across America ... but it is not an impossibility.

The bottom-line is that this is an exciting grant because it has both mid-term potential for NASA, as well as long-term potential for transforming the energy industry.

Jack Uldrich