Tag Archives: oxygen

Creating cheap, small carbon nanotubes

The excitement fairly crackles off the video,

A May 24, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces the research,

Imagine a box you plug into the wall that cleans your toxic air and pays you cash.

That’s essentially what Vanderbilt University researchers produced after discovering the blueprint for turning the carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes with small diameters.

Carbon nanotubes are supermaterials that can be stronger than steel and more conductive than copper. The reason they’re not in every application from batteries to tires is that these amazing properties only show up in the tiniest nanotubes, which are extremely expensive. Not only did the Vanderbilt team show they can make these materials from carbon dioxide sucked from the air, but how to do this in a way that is much cheaper than any other method out there.

I’m not sure what ‘small’ means in this context. I’ve heard of long and short carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and also of single-walled, multi-walled, and double-walled CNTs. I wish there’d been an an explanation and measurements for ‘small diameter CNTs’. That nitpick aside, a May 23, 2018 Vanderbilt University news release by Heidi Hall adds a few more technical details,

These materials, which Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cary Pint calls “black gold,” could steer the conversation from the negative impact of emissions to how we can use them in future technology.

“One of the most exciting things about what we’ve done is use electrochemistry to pull apart carbon dioxide into elemental constituents of carbon and oxygen and stitch together, with nanometer precision, those carbon atoms into new forms of matter,” Pint said. “That opens the door to being able to generate really valuable products with carbon nanotubes.

“These could revolutionize the world.”

In a report published today in ACS [American Chemical Society] Applied Materials and Interfaces, Pint, interdisciplinary material science Ph.D. student Anna Douglas and their team describe how tiny nanoparticles 10,000 times smaller than a human hair can be produced from coatings on stainless steel surfaces. The key was making them small enough to be valuable.

“The cheapest carbon nanotubes on the market cost around $100-200 per kilogram,” Douglas said. “Our research advance demonstrates a pathway to synthesize carbon nanotubes better in quality than these materials with lower cost and using carbon dioxide captured from the air.”

But making small nanotubes is no small task. The research team showed that a process called Ostwald ripening — where the nanoparticles that grow the carbon nanotubes change in size to larger diameters — is a key contender against producing the infinitely more useful size. The team showed they could partially overcome this by tuning electrochemical parameters to minimize these pesky large nanoparticles.

side-by-side photos showing stainless steel plate becoming covered in carbon nanotubes (which look like lumps of ash or mud)
Small diameter carbon nanotubes grown on a stainless steel surface. (Pint Lab/Vanderbilt University)

This core technology led Pint and Douglas to co-found SkyNano LLC, a company focused on building upon the science of this process to scale up and commercialize products from these materials.

“What we’ve learned is the science that opens the door to now build some of the most valuable materials in our world, such as diamonds and single-walled carbon nanotubes, from carbon dioxide that we capture from air through our process,” Pint said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Toward Small-Diameter Carbon Nanotubes Synthesized from Captured Carbon Dioxide: Critical Role of Catalyst Coarsening by Anna Douglas, Rachel Carter, Mengya Li, and Cary L. Pint. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsami.8b02834 Publication Date (Web): May 1, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Regarding the start-up, SkyNano, which Douglas and Pint have co-founded, it looks to be at a  very early stage.

Detonating (exploding) your way to graphene

Physicists at Kansas State University use controlled detonation to make graphene according to a Jan. 25, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Forget chemicals, catalysts and expensive machinery — a Kansas State University team of physicists has discovered a way to mass-produce graphene with three ingredients: hydrocarbon gas, oxygen and a spark plug.

Their method is simple: Fill a chamber with acetylene or ethylene gas and oxygen. Use a vehicle spark plug to create a contained detonation. Collect the graphene that forms afterward.

Chris Sorensen, Cortelyou-Rust university distinguished professor of physics, is the lead inventor of the recently issued patent, “Process for high-yield production of graphene via detonation of carbon-containing material”. Other Kansas State University researchers involved include Arjun Nepal, postdoctoral researcher and instructor of physics, and Gajendra Prasad Singh, former visiting scientist.

For further reading here’s the Jan. 25, 2017 Kansas State University news release, which originated the news item,

“We have discovered a viable process to make graphene,” Sorensen said. “Our process has many positive properties, from the economic feasibility, the possibility for large-scale production and the lack of nasty chemicals. What might be the best property of all is that the energy required to make a gram of graphene through our process is much less than other processes because all it takes is a single spark.”

Graphene is a single atom-thick sheet of hexagonally coordinated carbon atoms, which makes it the world’s thinnest material. Since graphene was isolated in 2004, scientists have found it has valuable physical and electronic properties with many possible applications, such as more efficient rechargeable batteries or better electronics.

For Sorensen’s research team, the serendipitous path to creating graphene started when they were developing and patenting carbon soot aerosol gels. They created the gels by filling a 17-liter aluminum chamber with acetylene gas and oxygen. Using a spark plug, they created a detonation in the chamber. The soot from the detonation formed aerosol gels that looked like “black angel food cake,” Sorensen said.

But after further analysis, the researchers found that the aerosol gel was more than lookalike dark angel food cake — it was graphene.

“We made graphene by serendipity,” Sorensen said. “We didn’t plan on making graphene. We planned on making the aerosol gel and we got lucky.”

But unlike other methods of creating graphene, Sorensen’s method is simple, efficient, low-cost and scalable for industry.

Other methods of creating graphene involve “cooking” the mineral graphite with chemicals — such as sulfuric acid, sodium nitrate, potassium permanganate or hydrazine — for a long time at precisely prescribed temperatures. Additional methods involve heating hydrocarbons to 1,000 degrees Celsius in the presence of catalysts.

Such methods are energy intensive — and even dangerous — and have low yield, while Sorensen and his team’s method makes larger quantities with minimal energy and no dangerous chemicals.

“The real charm of our experiment is that we can produce graphene in the quantity of grams rather than milligrams,” Nepal said.

Now the research team — including Justin Wright, doctoral student in physics, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania — is working to improve the quality of the graphene and scale the laboratory process to an industrial level. They are upgrading some of the equipment to make it easier to get graphene from the chamber seconds — rather than minutes — after the detonation. Accessing the graphene more quickly could improve the quality of the material, Sorensen said.

The patent was issued to the Kansas State University Research Foundation, a nonprofit corporation responsible for managing technology transfer activities at the university.

I wish they’d filmed one of their graphene explosions even if it meant that all we’d get is the sight of a canister and the sound of a boom. Still, they did show a brief spark from the spark plug.