Carbon Nanotubes 101 – Applications

The special nature of carbon combined with the molecular perfection of single-walled nanotubes to endow them with exceptional material properties, such as very high electrical and thermal conductivity, strength, stiffness, and toughness. No other element in the periodic table bonds to itself in an extended network with the strength of the carbon-carbon bond. The delocalized pi-electron donated by each atom is free to move about the entire structure, rather than remain with its donor atom, giving rise to the first known molecule with metallic-type electrical conductivity. Furthermore, the high-frequency carbon-carbon bonds vibrations provide an intrinsic thermal conductivity higher than even diamond. In most conventional materials, however, the actual observed material properties - strength, electrical conductivity, etc. - are degraded very substantially by the occurrence of defects in their structure. For example, high-strength steel typically fails at only about 1% of its theoretical breaking strength. CNTs, however, achieve values very close to their theoretical limits because of their molecular perfection of structure.
This aspect is part of the unique story of CNTs. CNTs are an example of true nanotechnology: they are under 100 nanometers in diameter, but are molecules that can be manipulated chemically and physically in very useful ways. They open an incredible range of applications in materials science, electronics, chemical processing, energy management, and many other fields. CNTs have extraordinary electrical conductivity, heat conductivity, and mechanical properties. They are probably the best electron field-emitter possible. They are polymers of pure carbon and can be reacted and manipulated using the well-known and the tremendously rich chemistry of carbon. This provides opportunity to modify their structure, and to optimize their solubility and dispersion. Very significantly, CNTs are molecularly perfect, which means that they are normally free of property-degrading flaws in the nanotube structure. Their material properties can therefore approach closely the very high levels intrinsic to them. These extraordinary characteristics give CNTs potential in numerous applications.

Field Emission

CNTs are the best known field emitters of any material. This is understandable, given their high electrical conductivity, and the incredible sharpness of their tip. The smaller the tip’s radius of curvature, the more concentrated the electric field will be, leading to increased field emission. The sharpness of the tip also means that they emit at especially low voltage, an important fact for building low-power electrical devices that utilize this feature. CNTs can carry an astonishingly high current density. Furthermore, the current is extremely stable. An immediate application of this behavior receiving considerable interest is in field-emission flat-panel displays. Instead of a single electron gun, as in a traditional cathode ray tube display, in CNT-based displays there is a separate nanotube electron gun for each individual pixel in the display. Their high current density, low turn-on and operating voltages, and steady, long-lived behavior make CNTs very attractive field emitters in this application. Other applications utilizing the field-emission characteristics of CNTs include general types of low-voltage cold-cathode lighting sources, lightning arrestors, and electron microscope sources.

Conductive or Reinforced Plastics

Much of the history of plastics over the last half-century has involved their use as a replacement for metals. For structural applications, plastics have made tremendous headway, but not where electrical conductivity is required, because plastics are very good electrical insulators. This deficiency is overcome by loading plastics up with conductive fillers, such as carbon black and larger graphite fibers. The loading required to provide the necessary conductivity using conventional fillers is typically high, however, resulting in heavy parts, and more importantly, plastic parts whose structural properties are highly degraded. It is well-established that the higher the aspect ratio of the filler particles, the lower the loading required to achieve a given level of conductivity.
CNTs are ideal in this sense, since they have the highest aspect ratio of any carbon fiber. In addition, their natural tendency to form ropes provides inherently very long conductive pathways even at ultra-low loadings. Applications that exploit this behavior of CNTs include EMI/RFI shielding composites; coatings for enclosures, gaskets, and other uses such as electrostatic dissipation; antistatic materials, transparent conductive coatings; and radar-absorbing materials for stealth applications.
A lot of automotive plastics companies are using CNTs as well. CNTs have been added into the side mirror plastics on automobiles in the US since the
late 1990s. I have seen forecasts predicting that GM alone will consume over 500 pounds of CNT masterbatches in 2006 for using in all areas of automotive plastics. Masterbatches normally contain 20 wt% cnts which are already very well dispersed. Manufacturers then need to perform a “let down” or dilution procedure prior to using the masterbatch in production

Energy Storage

CNTs have the intrinsic characteristics desired in material used as electrodes in batteries and capacitors, two technologies of rapidly increasing importance. CNTs have a tremendously high surface area, good electrical conductivity, and very importantly, their linear geometry makes their surface highly accessible to the electrolyte.
Research has shown that CNTs have the highest reversible capacity of any carbon material for use in lithium ion batteries. In addition, CNTs are outstanding materials for super capacitor electrodes and are now being marketed for this application. CNTs also have applications in a variety of fuel cell components. They have a number of properties, including high surface area and thermal conductivity, which make them useful as electrode catalyst supports in PEM fuel cells. Because of their high electrical conductivity, they may also be used in gas diffusion layers, as well as current collectors. CNTs' high strength and toughness-to-weight characteristics may also prove valuable as part of composite components in fuel cells that are deployed in transport applications, where durability is extremely important.

Conductive Adhesives and Connectors

The same properties that make CNTs attractive as conductive fillers for use in electromagnetic shielding, ESD materials, etc., make them attractive for electronics packaging and interconnection applications, such as adhesives, potting compounds, coaxial cables, and other types of connectors.

Molecular Electronics

The idea of building electronic circuits out of the essential building blocks of materials - molecules - has seen a revival the past few years, and is a key component of nanotechnology. In any electronic circuit, but particularly as dimensions shrink to the nanoscale, the interconnections between switches and other active devices become increasingly important. Their geometry, electrical conductivity, and ability to be precisely derived, make CNTs the ideal candidates for the connections in molecular electronics. In addition, they have been demonstrated as switches themselves.
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