Nanotransfer printing enhances atomic penetration in vertically aligned carbon nanotubes

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Carbon nanotubes have long captivated the imaginations of material scientists due to their extraordinary mechanical strength, chemical stability, and electrical properties. Vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (VACNTs), in particular, have shown immense potential for applications ranging from physical, chemical and biological sensors to field emission devices, transistors, adhesives and energy storage systems. The remarkable alignment of VACNTs has been key to their reliable performance in these diverse domains.
However, despite the enormous promise, the widespread adoption of VACNTs has been hindered by a few persistent challenges. The abundant van der Waals forces between individual nanotubes and their low intrinsic mechanical resilience limit the deformation recovery of VACNTs upon the application of external forces. Moreover, the high crystallinity and purity of VACNTs, while desirable for many applications, also render them chemically inert, necessitating additional functionalization for certain use cases.
Researchers have attempted to address these limitations through various atomic decoration processes aimed at enhancing the functionality of VACNTs. Conventional liquid-based functionalization methods like spin coating, dip coating, and spray coating have proven unsuitable due to aggregation between the nanotubes caused by surface tension effects, the low surface energy of VACNTs, and the strong resistance of the VACNT nanostructures to liquids.
More sophisticated atomic decoration methods such as atomic layer deposition (ALD) and electron-beam deposition have shown some promise, but achieving uniform coatings on the high density, high aspect ratio VACNTs has remained an elusive goal.
Now, in a potential game-changer for the field, a team of researchers has developed a novel strategy to design and apply nanopatterned VACNTs (nVACNTs) based on a nanotransfer printing process to dramatically improve atomic penetration into the nanotube arrays. Their work, published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials ("Nanotransfer Printing for Synthesis of Vertically Aligned Carbon Nanotubes with Enhanced Atomic Penetration"), could open the door to exciting new applications for VACNTs in areas like mechanical damping, chemical sensing, and beyond.
Schematic representation of the nanopatterned vertically aligned carbon nanotubes fabrication process and its applications
Schematic representation of the nVACNTs fabrication process and its applications. a) Nanostructuring strategy schematic of nVACNT. The nanopattern imprinting process using PUA polymer is conducted for nVACNT seed nanopatterning. O2 plasma is treated for etching PUA mold to enhance transfer quality. After plasma treatment, Au nanopatterns are transferred to the silicon (Si) wafer. Al2O3 and Fe are evaporated on Au nanopatterns transferred Si wafer. Then, the Au nanopattern is etched using the Au etchant and ultrasonication. nVACNT is grown by the CVD method. b) Structural representation of the nVACNTs. c) Schematic illustration of the atomic layer deposition (ALD) on nVACNTs (Blue color: ALD treated areas of functional materials (e.g., ZnO or Al2O3), violet and green color: ALD gas molecules). The atomic decoration causes a higher mechanical resilience (Precovery) and a lower van der Waals force (PVDW). d) The mechanical recovery of the VACNTs is enhanced by decoration with inorganic materials such as ZnO. e) Schematic representation of the atomic decoration of the VACNTs by E-beam deposition (Gold color: metal (eg. Au) catalyst particles for gas sensors, pink color: harmful target gas molecules). f) Application of the Au catalyst-decorated VACNTs as a NO2 gas sensor. Upon varying the concentration of NO2, the resistance changes (black line: nVACNTs with catalyst, green line: VACNTs). (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag) (click on image to enlarge)
The key innovation lies in the inherent nanopatterns of the nVACNTs, which facilitate the penetration of atoms, allowing for more consistent and higher quality deposition of functional materials such as zinc oxide and alumina via ALD. The researchers also demonstrated improved coating of metal catalysts like gold through physical vapor deposition.
To achieve the nanopatterning, the team employed a clever nanotransfer printing technique. They first created a polyurethane acrylate mold with the desired nanopatterns using nanoimprinting. A thin gold film was then deposited on the mold and transferred to a silicon wafer substrate by exploiting differences in adhesion forces through oxygen plasma treatment. The gold nanopatterns then served as a mask for depositing the alumina and iron catalyst layers needed for VACNT growth. A chemical vapor deposition process was finally used to synthesize the nanopatterned VACNTs in the desired configurations.
The researchers put their nVACNTs to the test in two promising application areas: mechanical damping nanofoams and nitrogen dioxide gas sensors. For the mechanical tests, they used ALD to uniformly coat the nVACNTs with zinc oxide. The ceramic layer served to strengthen the mechanical resilience by reducing the van der Waals forces between nanotubes. Notably, the nanopattern-enabled ALD resulted in fully recoverable elastic behavior over large areas, a feat not possible with unpatterned VACNTs.
In gas sensing experiments, nVACNTs decorated with gold nanoparticles via electron-beam deposition exhibited drastically higher nitrogen dioxide sensitivities compared to non-patterned counterparts. The nanopatterning allowed for deeper and more uniform penetration of the gold catalyst, greatly increasing the catalytically active surface area. The researchers attributed the enhanced sensing performance to the synergistic effects of increased gas permeability and more effective catalyst decoration enabled by the nanopatterns.
The implications of this work are far-reaching. The nVACNT fabrication approach is highly versatile, allowing for various complex nanopattern geometries beyond simple lines and dots. The nanotransfer printing process is also substrate agnostic and should be adaptable to different surfaces like glass and flexible materials. Additionally, while the researchers focused on zinc oxide and alumina coatings in this study, the ALD technique is compatible with a wide variety of other materials, opening possibilities for imparting diverse functionalities to the nVACNTs.
As scientists continue to push the boundaries of nanotechnology, the development of nanopatterned VACNTs marks an exciting leap forward. By overcoming the long-standing challenges of chemical functionalization and atomic infiltration, this novel approach unlocks the full potential of VACNTs for a wide range of mechanical, chemical, and sensing applications. From ultralight, high-resilience nanofoams for energy dissipation to highly sensitive miniaturized gas detectors, nVACNTs could become the nanomaterial of choice for the next generation of advanced functional devices.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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