I mentioned single-walled carbon nanotubes before. They are very exciting materials that are very challenging to use because they really like to group together rather than spreading out. This is because interactions between particles also increase with surface area, which poses a big challenge (this is also part of the reason why electrospun nanofibers can stay together without a binder when used as a dry adhesive!). The challenge is how to separate the tubes without changing their properties too much. The first approach is to basically destroy the tubes through an oxidation process. This is akin to polishing a stained-glass mirror with a hammer, but it does kind of work. It reduces big bundles of tubes down to smaller bundles. But it introduces lots of defects (which are the points where the tubes are disconnected and non-aggregating, so critical to the whole concept), which hurts the electrical and mechanical properties. To improve on this, you can introduce bigger functional groups that push the tubes farther apart without having to damage them too extensively. Again, this is OK, but we are still hurting the very objects we are trying to use, and that seems immoral.
The approach we developed in my prior research group was to add a second dispersant particle that assists in separating the tubes from the bundles, and may remain in the system to keep them separated. In this case, you can then introduce the same functional molecules as before to space out the tubes with a much lower degree of damage and then remove the dispersant. We did this using a plate-like nanoparticle called zirconium phosphate (ZrP; more on this one in the future!). This nanoplatelet-assisted dispersion technique allowed the aggregates to be broken down to the individual tube level without introducing significant damage or relying on additional molecules to keep them separated.
In this case, you can a lot of very interesting things. On a fundamental side, you can see what the effect of an individual nanotube really is! In most cases, people just tossed the bundled tubes into a plastic and assumed that what they were seeing was the effect of the individual tubes. They would then make ridiculous extrapolations after what the behavior of the material “might have been” based on these observations, and that did help fund further research based on their ridiculous claims, but screwed over future researchers that weren’t able to achieve their non-sensical boasts and empty promises (I’m not passionate about this, I swear). What we were able to do was several studies that compared individual tubes with aggregated tubes and we found a number of things that made a lot of sense in hindsight. If you have individual tubes, you require less of them to see a change in behavior. This is an effect called “percolation” that is very neat and worthy of a write-up all its own (if you have institutional access, see “Electrical conductivity of well-exfoliated single-walled carbon nanotubes,” Carbon, 49(15), p. 5124-5131 (2011) and “Electrical conductivity and thermal stability of polypropylene containing well-dispersed multi-walled carbon nanotubes disentangled with exfoliated nanoplatelets,” Carbon, 50(12), p. 4711-21 (2012) for brief and semi-coherent introductions).
There are quite a few nice examples to continue with here, but I will leave that for another post. We are finally descending into Pittsburg (not Akron like I was supposed to go – now the adventure of a rental car and a 2 hour drive at 2 in the morning; happy New Year from Midwest weather), but I hope this was enough to whet some appetites and if my New Year’s goals are to believed, there will be more forthcoming, on topics spanning across the board. Bio-mimicry is a near-term target. Much to do.
Thanks for reading.
KLW – 1/2/2017, somewhere between Chicago and Pittsburg