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Carbon Nanotubes 101 – Properties
This section tries to give an overview of the many useful and unique properties of CNTs.
CNTs can be highly conducting, and hence can be said to be metallic. Their conductivity has been shown to be a function of their chirality, the degree of twist as well as their diameter. CNTs can be either metallic or semi-conducting in their electrical behavior. Conductivity in MWNTs is quite complex. Some types of “armchair”-structured CNTs appear to conduct better than other metallic CNTs. Furthermore, interwall reactions within multi walled nanotubes have been found to redistribute the current over individual tubes non-uniformly. However, there is no change in current across different parts of metallic single-walled nanotubes. The behavior of the ropes of semi-conducting single walled nanotubes is different, in that the transport current changes abruptly at various positions on the CNTs.
The conductivity and resistivity of ropes of single walled nanotubes has been measured by placing electrodes at different parts of the CNTs. The resistivity of the single walled nanotubes ropes was of the order of 10–4 ohm-cm at 27°C. This means that single walled nanotube ropes are the most conductive carbon fibers known. The current density that was possible to achieve was 10-7 A/cm2, however in theory the single walled nanotube ropes should be able to sustain much higher stable current densities, as high as 10-13 A/cm2. It has been reported that individual single walled nanotubes may contain defects. Fortuitously, these defects allow the single walled nanotubes to act as transistors. Likewise, joining CNTs together may form transistor-like devices. A nanotube with a natural junction (where a straight metallic section is joined to a chiral semiconducting section) behaves as a rectifying diode – that is, a half-transistor in a single molecule. It has also recently been reported that single walled nanotubes can route electrical signals at speeds up to 10 GHz when used as interconnects on semi-conducting devices.
Strength and Elasticity
The carbon atoms of a single sheet of graphite form a planar honeycomb lattice, in which each atom is connected via a strong chemical bond to three neighboring atoms. Because of these strong bonds, the basal plane elastic modulus of graphite is one of the largest of any known material. For this reason, CNTs are expected to be the ultimate high-strength fibers. Single walled nanotubes are stiffer than steel, and are very resistant to damage from physical forces. Pressing on the tip of a nanotube will cause it to bend, but without damage to the tip. When the force is removed, the nanotube returns to its original state. This property makes CNTs very useful as probe tips for very high-resolution scanning probe microscopy. Quantifying these effects has been rather difficult, and an exact numerical value has not been agreed upon.
Using atomic force microscopy, the unanchored ends of a freestanding nanotube can be pushed out of their equilibrium position, and the force required to push the nanotube can be measured. The current Young’s modulus value of single walled nanotubes is about 1 TeraPascal, but this value has been widely disputed, and a value as high as 1.8 Tpa has been reported. Other values significantly higher than that have also been reported. The differences probably arise through different experimental measurement techniques. Others have shown theoretically that the Young’s modulus depends on the size and chirality of the single walled nanotubes, ranging from 1.22 Tpa to 1.26 Tpa. They
have calculated a value of 1.09 Tpa for a generic nanotube. However, when working with different multi walled nanotubes, others have noted that the modulus measurements of multi walled nanotubes using AFM techniques do not strongly depend on the diameter. Instead, they argue that the modulus of the multi walled nanotubes correlates to the amount of disorder in the nanotube walls. Not surprisingly, when multi walled nanotubes break, the outermost layers break first.
Thermal Conductivity and Expansion
CNTs have been shown to exhibit superconductivity below 20°K (aaprox. -253°C). Research suggests that these exotic strands, already heralded for their unparalleled strength and unique ability to adopt the electrical properties of either semiconductors or perfect metals, may someday also find applications as miniature heat conduits in a host of devices and materials. The strong in-plane graphitic carbon - carbon bonds make them exceptionally strong and stiff against axial strains. The almost zero in-plane thermal expansion but large inter-plane expansion of single walled nanotubes implies strong in-plane coupling and high flexibility against non-axial strains.
Many applications of CNTs, such as in nanoscale molecular electronics, sensing and actuating devices, or as reinforcing additive fibers in functional composite materials, have been proposed. Reports of several recent experiments on the preparation and mechanical characterization of CNT-polymer composites have also appeared. These measurements suggest modest enhancements in strength characteristics of CNT-embedded matrixes as compared to bare polymer matrixes. Preliminary experiments and simulation studies on the thermal properties of CNTs show very high thermal conductivity. It is expected, therefore, that nanotube reinforcements in polymeric materials may also significantly improve the thermal and thermomechanical properties of the composites.
Field emission results from the tunneling of electrons from a metal tip into vacuum, under application of a strong electric field. The small diameter and high aspect ratio of CNTs is very favorable for field emission. Even for moderate voltages, a strong electric field develops at the free end of supported CNTs because of their sharpness. This was observed by de Heer and co-workers at EPFL in 1995. He also immediately realized that these field emitters must be superior to conventional electron sources and might find their way into all kind of applications, most importantly flat-panel displays. It is remarkable that after only five years Samsung actually realized a very bright color display, which will be shortly commercialized using this technology. Studying the field emission properties of multi walled nanotubes, Bonard and co-workers at EPFL observed that together with electrons, light is emitted as well. This luminescence is induced by the electron field emission, since it is not detected without applied potential. This light emission occurs in the visible part of the spectrum, and can sometimes be seen with the naked eye.
High Aspect Ratio
CNTs represent a very small, high aspect ratio conductive additive for plastics of all types. Their high aspect ratio means that a lower loading of CNTs is needed compared to other conductive additives to achieve the same electrical conductivity. This low loading preserves more of the polymer resins’ toughness, especially at low temperatures, as well as maintaining other key performance properties of the matrix resin. CNTs have proven to be an excellent additive to impart electrical conductivity in plastics. Their high aspect ratio, about 1000:1 imparts electrical conductivity at lower loadings, compared to conventional additive materials such as carbon black, chopped carbon fiber, or stainless steel fiber.
The large surface area and high absorbency of CNTs make them ideal candidates for use in air, gas, and water filtration. A lot of research is being done in replacing activated charcoal with CNTs in certain ultra high purity applications.