Cleaning Carbon Nanotubes Makes Them Work Better
Mike Williams, 10 Jan 18

(Credit: Getty Images)

Scientists have found a way to remove contaminants from carbon nanotubes, which need to be as clean as possible to maximize their utility in next-generation nanoscale devices.

In the process, the researchers also discovered why the electrical properties of nanotubes have historically been so difficult to measure.

Like any normal wire, semiconducting nanotubes are progressively more resistant to current along their length. But over the years, conductivity measurements of nanotubes have been anything but consistent. The team wanted to know why.

“We are interested in the creation of nanotube-based conductors, and while people have been able to make wires, their conduction has not met expectations,” says Rice University chemist Andrew Barron, also a professor at Swansea in the United Kingdom. “We wanted to determine the basic science behind the variability observed by other researchers.”

Between two probes

They discovered that hard-to-remove contaminants—leftover iron catalyst, carbon, and water—could easily skew the results of conductivity tests. Burning those contaminants away, Barron says, creates new possibilities for carbon nanotubes in nanoscale electronics.

As reported in Nano Letters, researchers first made multiwalled carbon nanotubes between 40 and 200 nanometers in diameter and up to 30 microns long. They then either heated the nanotubes in a vacuum or bombarded them with argon ions to clean their surfaces.

They tested individual nanotubes the same way one would test any electrical conductor: by touching them with two probes to see how much current passes through the material from one tip to the other. In this case, tungsten probes were attached to a scanning tunneling microscope.

In clean nanotubes, resistance got progressively stronger as the distance increased, as it should. But the results were skewed when the probes encountered surface contaminants, which increased the electric field strength at the tip. And when measurements were taken within 4 microns of each other, regions of depleted conductivity caused by contaminants overlapped, which further scrambled the results.

“We think this is why there’s such inconsistency in the literature,” Barron says. “If nanotubes are to be the next-generation lightweight conductor, then consistent results, batch-to-batch and sample-to-sample, are needed for devices such as motors and generators as well as power systems.”

Heating the nanotubes in a vacuum above 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) reduced surface contamination, but not enough to eliminate inconsistent results, they found. Argon ion bombardment also cleaned the tubes but led to an increase in defects that degrade conductivity.

Ultimately the researchers discovered vacuum annealing nanotubes at 500 degrees Celsius (932 Fahrenheit) reduced contamination enough to measure resistance accurately.

Decontaminated tubes

Barron says engineers who use nanotube fibers or films in devices currently modify the material through doping or other means to get the conductive properties they require. But if the source nanotubes are sufficiently decontaminated, they should be able to get the desired conductivity by simply putting their contacts in the right spot.

“A key result of our work is that if contacts on a nanotube are less than 1 micron apart, the electronic properties of the nanotube change from conductor to semiconductor, due to the presence of overlapping depletion zones, which shrink but are still present even in clean nanotubes,” says Barron, professor of chemistry and a professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.

“This has a potential limiting factor on the size of nanotube-based electronic devices,” he says. “Carbon-nanotube devices would be limited in how small they could become, so Moore’s Law would only apply to a point.”

The Welsh Government Sêr Cymru National Research Network in Advanced Engineering and Materials, the Sêr Cymru Chair Program, the Office of Naval Research, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation supported the research.

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