Carbon nanotubes have been a hot topic in popular science culture for some time now, but so far few real-world products have benefited from the high-tech material. That could change very quickly thanks to the development of a thin sheet of carbon paper known as 'buckypaper'. When pressed together to form a composite, buckypaper could produce a material 10 times stronger but 500 times lighter than steel.

The radical material isn't like carbon fiber at all, in that it conducts electricity like copper or silicon and yet disperses heat like steel or brass, reports theAssociated Press. This combination of properties makes buckypaper a particularly valuable material in many fields, not the least of which is the automotive sector. "All those things are what a lot of people in nanotechnology have been working toward as sort of Holy Grails," said Wade Adams, a scientist at Rice University.

Buckypaper isn't brand-new - it's been in development for about 20 years, and has existed in forms similar to its current state for at least the past several years. What's new is that the material is nearing commercial applications. Use in structural and aerodynamic parts of cars - even race cars - is probably several years away at least, as the buckypaper still requires much in the way of development and testing before it can be a fully certified material for use in building such vehicles. Buckypaper is also very expensive, so it will likely take several years beyond its initial introduction to reach relatively widespread use - in that respect it is very much like carbon fiber.

Development plans are already underway though the material has to date only been made in the lab. Because of limited manufacturing resources, the purity and structure of the buckypaper hasn't been optimized yet. A commercial venture by Florida State University - the school where the material was discovered - is already underway, however, and scientists think that the first commercial applications - likely to be electrical shielding components - of the material could come in as little as 12 months.

Named after a unique form of pure carbon, called the 'buckyball', buckypaper is composed of approximately 50% carbon nanotubes. The buckyball was in turn named after Richard Buckminster Fuller, an architect and designer famous for constructing geodesic domes, which the scientist that discovered the buckyballs though bore a resemblance to the 60-atom balls of carbon.

Buckypaper carbon composite material