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Air Force’s Iron Man suit can also be used to power-up gadgets

In this image for Marvel Studios, Robert Downey Jr. portrays Iron Man in a scene in “Avengers: Infinity War.” (Marvel Studios via AP)

Even Tony Stark would be jealous.

Engineers at the University of Cincinnati along with Air Force Research Laboratory, and working on the technique, the clothing that one day the power gadgets, including a mobile phone.

Carbon technology is the core of this, including the so-called “Iron Man exoskeleton” is currently tested, which allows the power to be stored in carbon nanotubes.

The work is not easy, University of Cincinnati professor Vesselin Shanov said, as he tries to craft the “smart” materials that hopefully will one day power everything from mobile phones to aircraft.

UC student Mark Haase shows the conductivity of carbon nanotube fibers in a battery-powered light.

(Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services)

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“The big challenge is to translate these beautiful properties to take advantage of their strength, conductivity and heat resistance,” Shanov said in a statement.

The nanotubes are “grown” on silicon wafers the size of a quarter and the intense heat in a vacuum chamber, in a process known as chemical vapor deposition. From there, the square is stretched and the sheet of carbon changes in a spun thread, which the researchers defined as the same as a spider’s silk and converted into a textile factory.

“It is exactly as textiles,” Shanov said. “We can assemble as a machine thread for use in applications ranging from sensors to keep track of heavy metals in the water or energy storage devices including super capacitors and batteries.”

A possible military application is to replace the heavy batteries that charge of the electronics on a soldier gear, including things like lighting, night-vision and communications equipment. This would be the soldiers to be more nimble and maneuverable, since about a third of the weight of the soldiers wear is for the batteries to power their equipment.

“Even if we can shave a little bit of that, it is a great advantage for them in the field,” said the student, Mark Haase.

More work needs to be done to get the project up to scale, said Benji Maruyama, who leads the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Currently, the lab can only get about 50 metres of carbon nanotube wire at a time, much less than what is required for commercial applications.

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“The pull of a carbon nanotube fiber from a silicon disk is good for lab-scale research, but not for making an airplane wing or flight suit,” Maruyama said.

And despite the promise of the technology (preliminary results were considered “very promising”), it is unlikely to make its way into products anytime soon, the costs are still prohibitive.

“We work with clients who care more about performance than cost. But once we perfect synthesis, scale up significantly and the costs should drop accordingly,” Haase added. “Then we will see that the carbon nanotubes spread to many, many more applications.”

In the meantime, Iron Man doesn’t need to look over his shoulder as he and the rest of the Avengers to keep the world save.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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