Key Concepts
Nanotechnology, matter, strength, engineering

Introduction

Have you ever seen a superhero movie where the superhero relies on a super-strong material, like Wolverine's adamantium claws, Captain American's vibranium shield, or Iron Man's suit of armor? While scientists and engineers in comic books work on creating fictional materials to help superheroes win the day, real-world scientists and engineers are actually working on super-strong materials that could have a variety of uses, from improved bulletproof vests, to stronger ropes, lighter bikes and better spaceships. In this activity you'll explore how simply the shape of a material can dramatically affect its strength, using nothing more than sheets of paper. Who knows, maybe this will set you on the path to designing your own super powers! 

This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Background

Nanotechnology is the science of studying materials at the "nano" scale, or the scale of individual atoms and molecules. Just how small is the nanoscale? A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A typical human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide – so a nanometer is really small!

The structure of a material at the nanoscale can dramatically change how it behaves. For example, pencils contain graphite, which is made up of carbon atoms that are arranged in sheets and can easily slide around. It's easy to write with a pencil because the graphite sheets easily rub off onto paper. However, carbon atoms also make up some of the world's strongest materials – diamonds! In diamonds, carbon atoms are tightly packed together, making them so hard that they can cut metals like steel. 

Scientists are working on another super-strong version of carbon atoms called carbon nanotubes, which consist of sheets of carbon atoms rolled into tiny cylinders! While this makes individual carbon nanotubes incredibly strong, mass-producing carbon nanotubes remains a challenge. In this activity you’ll compare the strength of stacked sheets of paper vs. rolled tubes of paper, to simulate the difference between flaky graphite and carbon nanotubes.

Materials

  • Two tables, chairs, or desks of equal height
  • 12 pieces of paper
  • Scotch tape or rubber bands
  • Plastic cup
  • Sturdy string or thin ribbon
  • Hole punch or sharp knife (adult supervision required for knife)
  • Many coins, all of the same type. For example, about 250 pennies or about 100 quarters.

Preparation

  1. Set up your two identical tables, chairs, or desks so they are next to each other, with a two to three inch gap in between.
  2. Roll six of your pieces of paper into tubes about one inch in diameter. Use Scotch tape or rubber bands to hold the paper in tube shapes.
  3. Use the hole punch or knife (adult supervision required for knife) to punch two holes on opposite sides of the cup, near the rim at the top. Cut a piece of string several feet long, and tie one end of the string securely to each hole. 

Procedure

  1. Stack six sheets of paper on top of each other, so they bridge the gap between your two tables. Center the sheets across the middle of the gap.
  2. Hang the plastic cup from the sheets of paper, so the string goes directly across the middle of the sheets (centered in the gap between the tables). Do the papers sag at all under the weight of the plastic cup alone?
  3. One by one, add pennies to the plastic cup until the paper falls (note: if the string breaks before the paper, re-tie the knot or use a thicker string, then restart the experiment). How many pennies does it take to make the paper fall? What happens to the paper? Does it bend gradually, or does it fold sharply in the middle?
  4. Now, lay your six tubes of paper next to each other, with each one crossing the gap between the tables. Center the tubes across the middle of the gap. Make sure the tubes are pressed up against each other, with no space in between.
  5. Hang the plastic cup from the tubes, so the string goes around all six tubes, and is centered in the gap between the tables. Do the tubes sag at all under the weight of the plastic cup alone?
  6. One by one, add pennies to the plastic cup until the tubes fall (note: if the string breaks before the paper, re-tie the knot or use a thicker string, then restart the experiment). How many pennies does it take to make the tubes fall? What happens to the tubes? Do they bend gradually? Do they fold sharply in the middle?
  7. Which structure could hold more pennies, the flat sheets of paper, or the paper tubes? How do you think this relates to what you read about graphite and carbon nanotubes in the Background section?

Extra: Repeat this activity, but tape the flat sheets of paper together at the edges so they cannot slide with respect to each other. You can also try taping the paper tubes together. How does this change your results? Do the structures get stronger or weaker when they are taped together?

Extra: Repeat the activity with different diameter paper tubes, for example half-inch diameter and two inch diameter tubes. As tubes get bigger (or smaller) can they hold more or less weight?

Extra: Repeat the activity with other folded or rolled structures that you invent. For example, what happens if you fold a sheet of paper into a rectangular tube instead of a cylindrical one?  How does the strength of the tubes change as you vary their shape? Which shape is the strongest?

Observations and Results

Were the rolled sheets of paper stronger than the stacked sheets of paper?

You should have found that sheets of paper rolled into tubes were much stronger, and therefore could hold more pennies, than sheets of paper that were simply stacked on top of each other. Just like the sheets of carbon atoms in the graphite of a pencil, stacked sheets of paper are "flaky" – they can easily slide around on top of each other, which makes them very weak and unable to hold a lot of weight. When a sheet of paper is rolled into a tube, it becomes much stronger, even though it is still the same sheet of paper. This is similar to how carbon atoms become much stronger when they form tiny cylinders in carbon nanotubes. Note that in this activity, you modeled the differences between graphite sheets vs. carbon nanotubes by comparing paper sheets vs. paper tubes. While physics behaves differently at the nanoscale of individual atoms compared to at the "macro" scale (or the scale of everyday objects that we are used to), the general principle is still the same – you can drastically change the strength of a material simply by changing its shape.

More to Explore

Credits

Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies

Reviews

Reviews

|
Science Buddies |
Was this review helpful?
Key Concepts
Nanotechnology, matter, strength, engineering
icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Curious about the science?
Post your question for our scientists.

Free science fair projects.