At a conference that I had put the program together for a few years back, a speaker during his presentation suggested that maybe he would supply some carbon nanotubes to a bicycle manufacturer and have Lance Armstrong ride the bike in the Tour de France. What a great marketing idea, he thought out loud.
Being an avid cyclist and an even more avid fan of cycling, I explained to him that the professional cycling federation had put a weight limit on bicycles and that maybe there was not much to be gained in pursuing this marketing avenue.
How wrong I was. Since then, which I believe was around 2005, I have become aware of at least three high-end bicycles that employ some kind of nanoparticle in the frame.
The three that I know of are Spanish-based BH Bicycles, Swiss-based BMC and most recently I’ve discovered Italian-based Pinarello has gotten on the nano bandwagon.
What does the nanotech actually do for these bikes other than to raise their asking price slightly north of a new economy car? Well, it’s hard to say except by taking a look at their marketing copy.
Let’s start with the BH G4 bike. Here the marketing copy reads: “BH achieves this magical blend of low-weight, great ride and toughness using Nanotechnology resins.” “Nanotechnology resins”? After reading the rest it appears what they mean is that they are using carbon nanotubes as a filler material between the carbon fibers. Despite the rather breathless description of how carbon nanotubes “have a strength-to-weight ratio orders of magnitude greater than steel”, they never quite get around to saying whether the CNT-enabled resins make the carbon fiber bicycle any stronger or lighter than any other run-of-the-mill resin.
BMC it turns out is using carbon nanotubes in exactly the same way as BH (not really a surprise to be honest). But BMC does manage to say that the material matrix that is developed using these carbon nanotubes is 20% stronger for practically the same weight. I am a little concerned with the usage of the phrase “practically the same weight”. And for that matter what does “stronger” mean?
Pinarello appears to be much more discrete about their foray into nanomaterials, but they do manage to say the following: “the exclusive 60HM1K carbon by Torayca® with Nanoalloy™ that prevents sudden breakage.” Wow, now we’ve got a nanoalloy (and it’s trademarked)! From what I have been able to piece together about the “Nanoalloy™” from the bicycle trade press is that:
“Nanoalloy… disperses nanoscale elastomers between the carbon fibers. These elastomers have the ability to absorb impacts and prevent the propagation of cracks as they occur.” The result: Pinarello claims the Dogma frame weighs about 860 grams, 40 grams less than the Prince but is 23 percent more resistant to impacts.
Could this resistance to impacts that Pinarello describes be the same “stronger” that BMC offers up?
Is there anything to all of this nano talk in bicycles other than a cool marketing angle? Impossible to say outside of conducting some real experiments, and it’s hard to imagine anyone being that interested to bother.
Now if we can develop a material that would be perfect for the rigors of a bicycle frame by using a material by design method and then build the material and the frame atom-by-atom then I might pay a premium price for it. Will I still be able to ride a bike by then? Stay tuned.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.