Many of the desired applications of carbon nanotubes require the ability to attach them to electrically conductive surfaces, but we have only been successful in creating high-resistance interfaces between nanotubes and substrates. Now a team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reports two new techniques, each following a different approach, for placing carbon nanotube patterns on metal surfaces of just about any shape and size.
First is “floating catalyst chemical vapor deposition”. They heat a carbon-rich compound at extremely high temperatures until the material vaporizes. As the system cools, carbon deposits directly on the metal surface in the form of nanotube arrays. For this experiment, the team used surfaces made from Inconel, a nickel-based “super alloy” with good electrical conductivity. Until now this technique has only been used to grow nanotubes on substrates that are poor conductors of electricity.
There are many potential advantages to growing carbon nanotubes directly on metals with this simple, single-step process, according to Talapatra. Nanotubes attach to the surface with much greater strength; excellent electrical contact is established between the two materials; and nanotubes can be grown on surfaces of almost any shape and size, from curved sheets to long metal rods.
Second, the team developed a procedure that mimics the way photographs are printed from a film negative. They first grow patterns of carbon nanotubes on silicon surfaces using chemical vapor deposition, and then the nanotubes are transferred to metal surfaces that are coated with solder — a metal alloy that is melted to join metallic surfaces together. The nanotubes stick in the solder, maintaining their original arrangement on the new surface. And since solder has a low melting point, the process takes place at low temperature.
The researchers also demonstrated that the chemical vapor deposition procedure can be used to make nanotube electrodes for “super capacitors” — devices that have unusually high energy densities when compared to common capacitors, which are used to store energy in electrical circuits. These are of particular interest in automotive applications for hybrid vehicles and as supplementary storage for battery electric vehicles, according to the researchers.