Drawing a line, with carbon nanotubes

October 09, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Carbon nanotubes offer a powerful new way to detect harmful gases in the environment. However, the methods typically used to build carbon nanotube sensors are hazardous and not suited for large-scale production.

A new fabrication method created by MIT chemists -- as simple as drawing a line on a sheet of paper -- may overcome that obstacle. MIT postdoc Katherine Mirica has designed a new type of pencil lead in which graphite is replaced with a compressed powder of carbon nanotubes. The lead, which can be used with a regular mechanical pencil, can inscribe sensors on any paper surface.

The sensor, described in the journal Angewandte Chemie, detects minute amounts of ammonia gas, an industrial hazard. Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry and leader of the research team, says the sensors could be adapted to detect nearly any type of gas.

"The beauty of this is we can start doing all sorts of chemically specific functionalized materials," Swager says. "We think we can make sensors for almost anything that's volatile."

Other authors of the paper are graduate student Jonathan Weis and postdocs Jan Schnorr and Birgit Esser.

Pencil it in

Carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon atoms rolled into cylinders that allow electrons to flow without hindrance. Such materials have been shown to be effective sensors for many gases, which bind to the nanotubes and impede electron flow. However, creating these sensors requires dissolving nanotubes in a solvent such as dichlorobenzene, using a process that can be hazardous and unreliable.

Swager and Mirica set out to create a solvent-free fabrication method based on paper. Inspired by pencils on her desk, Mirica had the idea to compress carbon nanotubes into a graphite-like material that could substitute for pencil lead.

To create sensors using their pencil, the researchers draw a line of carbon nanotubes on a sheet of paper imprinted with small electrodes made of gold. They then apply an electrical current and measure the current as it flows through the carbon nanotube strip, which acts as a resistor. If the current is altered, it means gas has bound to the carbon nanotubes.

The researchers tested their device on several different types of paper, and found that the best response came with sensors drawn on smoother papers. They also found that the sensors give consistent results even when the marks aren't uniform.

Two major advantages of the technique are that it is inexpensive and the "pencil lead" is extremely stable, Swager says. "You can't imagine a more stable formulation. The molecules are immobilized," he says.

Sensors for any gas

In this study, the researchers focused on pure carbon nanotubes, but they are now working on tailoring the sensors to detect a wide range of gases. Selectivity can be altered by adding metal atoms to the nanotube walls, or by wrapping polymers or other materials around the tubes.

One gas the researchers are particularly interested in is ethylene, which would be useful for monitoring the ripeness of fruit as it is shipped and stored. The team is also pursuing sensors for sulfur compounds, which might prove helpful for detecting natural gas leaks.
-end-
The research was funded by the Army Research Office through MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies and a National Institutes of Health fellowship to Mirica.

Written by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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.