New composite material revs up pursuit of advanced electric vehicles

September 21, 2020

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory used new techniques to create a composite that increases the electrical current capacity of copper wires, providing a new material that can be scaled for use in ultra-efficient, power-dense electric vehicle traction motors.

The research is aimed at reducing barriers to wider electric vehicle adoption, including cutting the cost of ownership and improving the performance and life of components such as electric motors and power electronics. The material can be deployed in any component that uses copper, including more efficient bus bars and smaller connectors for electric vehicle traction inverters, as well as for applications such as wireless and wired charging systems.

To produce a lighter weight conductive material with improved performance, ORNL researchers deposited and aligned carbon nanotubes on flat copper substrates, resulting in a metal-matrix composite material with better current handling capacity and mechanical properties than copper alone.

Incorporating carbon nanotubes, or CNTs, into a copper matrix to improve conductivity and mechanical performance is not a new idea. CNTs are an excellent choice due to their lighter weight, extraordinary strength and conductive properties. But past attempts at composites by other researchers have resulted in very short material lengths, only micrometers or millimeters, along with limited scalability, or in longer lengths that performed poorly.

The ORNL team decided to experiment with depositing single-wall CNTs using electrospinning, a commercially viable method that creates fibers as a jet of liquid speeds through an electric field. The technique provides control over the structure and orientation of deposited materials, explained Kai Li, a postdoctoral researcher in ORNL's Chemical Sciences Division. In this case, the process allowed scientists to successfully orient the CNTs in one general direction to facilitate enhanced flow of electricity.

The team then used magnetron sputtering, a vacuum coating technique, to add thin layers of copper film on top of the CNT-coated copper tapes. The coated samples were then annealed in a vacuum furnace to produce a highly conductive Cu-CNT network by forming a dense, uniform copper layer and to allow diffusion of copper into the CNT matrix.

Using this method, ORNL scientists created a copper-carbon nanotube composite 10 centimeters long and 4 centimeters wide, with exceptional properties. The microstructural properties of the material were analyzed using instruments at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at ORNL, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science user facility. Researchers found the composite reached 14% greater current capacity, with up to 20% improved mechanical properties compared with pure copper, as detailed in ACS Applied Nano Materials.

Tolga Aytug, lead investigator for the project, said that "by embedding all the great properties of carbon nanotubes into a copper matrix, we are aiming for better mechanical strength, lighter weight and higher current capacity. Then you get a better conductor with less power loss, which in turn increases the efficiency and performance of the device. Improved performance, for instance, means we can reduce volume and increase the power density in advanced motor systems."

The work builds on a rich history of superconductivity research at ORNL, which has produced superior materials to conduct electricity with low resistance. The lab's superconductive wire technology was licensed to several industry suppliers, enabling such uses as high-capacity electric transmission with minimal power losses.

While the new composite breakthrough has direct implications for electric motors, it also could improve electrification in applications where efficiency, mass and size are a key metric, Aytug said. The improved performance characteristics, accomplished with commercially viable techniques, means new possibilities for designing advanced conductors for a broad range of electrical systems and industrial applications, he said.

The ORNL team also is exploring the use of double-wall CNTs and other deposition techniques such as ultrasonic spray coating coupled with a roll-to-roll system to produce samples of some 1 meter in length.

"Electric motors are basically a combination of metals -- steel laminations and copper windings," noted Burak Ozpineci, manager of the ORNL Electric Drive Technologies Program and leader of the Power Electronics and Electric Machinery group. "To meet DOE's Vehicle Technologies Office's 2025 electric vehicle targets and goals, we need to increase power density of the electric drive and reduce the volume of motors by 8 times, and that means improving material properties."
-end-
Other ORNL scientists on the project were Michael McGuire, Andrew Lupini, Lydia Skolrood, Fred List and Soydan Ozcan. The work was funded by DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE's Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Related Carbon Nanotubes Articles from Brightsurf:

How plantains and carbon nanotubes can improve cars
Researchers from the University of Johannesburg have shown that plantain, a starchy type of banana, is a promising renewable source for an emerging type of lighter, rust-free composite materials for the automotive industry.

New production method for carbon nanotubes gets green light
A new method of producing carbon nanotubes -- tiny molecules with incredible physical properties used in touchscreen displays, 5G networks and flexible electronics -- has been given the green light by researchers, meaning work in this crucial field can continue.

Growing carbon nanotubes with the right twist
Researchers synthetize nanotubes with a specific structure expanding previous theories on carbon nanotube growth.

Research shows old newspapers can be used to grow carbon nanotubes
New research has found that old newspaper provide a cheap and green solution for the bulk production of single walled carbon nanotubes.

Clean carbon nanotubes with superb properties
Scientists at Aalto University, Finland, and Nagoya University, Japan, have found a new way to make ultra-clean carbon nanotube transistors with superior semiconducting properties.

Dietary fiber effectively purifies carbon nanotubes
A dietary fiber can help separate out semiconducting carbon nanotubes used for making transistors for flexible electronics.

Why modified carbon nanotubes can help the reproducibility problem
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) conducted an in-depth study on how carbon nanotubes with oxygen-containing groups can be used to greatly enhance the performance of perovskite solar cells.

Tensile strength of carbon nanotubes depends on their chiral structures
Single-walled carbon nanotubes should theoretically be extremely strong, but it remains unclear why their experimental tensile strengths are lower and vary among nanotubes.

New study reveals carbon nanotubes measurement possible for the first time
Swansea University scientists report an entirely new approach to manipulation of carbon nanotubes that allows physical measurements to be made on carbon nanotubes that have previously only been possible by theoretical computation.

Neural networks will help manufacture carbon nanotubes
A team of scientists from Skoltech's Laboratory of Nanomaterials proposed a neural-network-based method for monitoring the growth of carbon nanotubes, preparing the ground for a new generation of sophisticated electronic devices.

Read More: Carbon Nanotubes News and Carbon Nanotubes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.