Engineers with the University of Cincinnati (UC) are working to create a type of technology typically reserved for super heroes like Iron Man. The university’s Nanoworld Laboratories is collaborating with the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army and NASA to investigate new uses for carbon nanotubes in military uniforms and fabric that can double as batteries.

According to a recent article by University of Cincinnati staff writer Michael Miller, what makes this possible are the unique properties of carbon nanotubes: a large surface area that is strong, conductive and heat-resistant.

To make the materials, UC researchers “grow” nanotubes on quarter-sized silicon wafers under heat in a vacuum chamber through a process called chemical vapor deposition.

“Each particle has a nucleation point. Colloquially, we can call it a seed,” says UC graduate student Mark Haase.“Our carbon-containing gas is introduced into the reactor. When the carbon gas interacts with our ‘seed,’ it breaks down and reforms on the surface. We let it grow until it reaches the size we want,” he said.

Researchers can use almost any carbon, from alcohol to methane. UC researchers stretch a little fibrous square over an industrial spool in the lab. The tiny sheet of carbon then becomes a spun thread that resembles spider’s silk that can be woven into textiles.

UC professor Vesselin Shanov co-directs UC’s Nanoworld Laboratories with research partner and UC professor Mark Schulz. Together, they are harnessing expertise in electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering to craft “smart” materials that can power electronics.

“The major challenge is translating these beautiful properties to take advantage of their strength, conductivity and heat resistance,” Shanov said.

Schulz believes that one day, carbon nanotubes will replace copper wire in cars and planes to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. Additionally, carbon will filter our water and tell us more about our lives and bodies through new biometric sensors. He also believes carbon will replace polyester and other synthetic fibers. And since carbon nanotubes are the blackest objects found on Earth, absorbing 99.9 percent of all visible light, you might say carbon is the new black.

“In the past, metals dominated manufacturing goods,” Schulz said. “But I think carbon is going to replace metals in a lot of applications. “There’s going to be a new carbon era – a carbon revolution.”