Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are allotropes of carbon with a cylindrical nanostructure. Nanotubes have been constructed with length-to-diameter ratio of up to 132,000,000:1, significantly larger than for any other material. These cylindrical carbon molecules have unusual properties, which are valuable for nanotechnology, electronics, optics and other fields of materials science and technology. In particular, owing to their extraordinary thermal conductivity and mechanical and electrical properties, carbon nanotubes find applications as additives to various structural materials.
Nanotubes are members of the fullerene structural family, which also includes the spherical buckyballs, and the ends of a nanotube may be capped with a hemisphere of the buckyball structure. Their name is derived from their long, hollow structure with the walls formed by one-atom-thick sheets of carbon, called graphene. These sheets are rolled at specific and discrete (“chiral”) angles, and the combination of the rolling angle and radius decides the nanotube properties; for example, whether the individual nanotube shell is a metal or semiconductor. Nanotubes are categorized as single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) and multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs). Individual nanotubes naturally align themselves into “ropes” held together by van der Waals forces, more specifically, pi-stacking.
Applied quantum chemistry, specifically, orbital hybridization best describes chemical bonding in nanotubes. The chemical bonding of nanotubes is composed entirely of sp2 bonds, similar to those of graphite. These bonds, which are stronger than the sp3 bonds found in alkanes and diamond, provide nanotubes with their unique strength.
Types of carbon nanotubes and related structures
There is no consensus on some terms describing carbon nanotubes in scientific literature: both “-wall” and “-walled” are being used in combination with “single”, “double”, “triple” or “multi”, and the letter C is often omitted in the abbreviation; for example, multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT).
Single-walled Carbon nanotubes
Most single-walled nanotubes (SWNT) have a diameter of close to 1 nanometer, with a tube length that can be many millions of times longer. The structure of a SWNT can be conceptualized by wrapping a one-atom-thick layer of graphite called graphene into a seamless cylinder. The way the graphene sheet is wrapped is represented by a pair of indices (n,m) . The integers n and m denote the number of unit vectors along two directions in the honeycomb crystal lattice of graphene. If m = 0, the nanotubes are called zigzag nanotubes, and if n = m, the nanotubes are called armchair nanotubes. Otherwise, they are called chiral. The diameter of an ideal nanotube can be calculated from its (n,m) indices as follows
where a = 0.246 nm.
SWNTs are an important variety of carbon nanotube because most of their properties change significantly with the (n,m) values, and this dependence is non-monotonic (see Kataura plot). In particular, their band gap can vary from zero to about 2 eV and their electrical conductivity can show metallic or semiconducting behavior. Single-walled nanotubes are likely candidates for miniaturizing electronics. The most basic building block of these systems is the electric wire, and SWNTs with diameters of an order of a nanometer can be excellent conductors.
Multi-walled Carbon Nanotubes
Multi-walled nanotubes (MWNT) consist of multiple rolled layers (concentric tubes) of graphene. There are two models that can be used to describe the structures of multi-walled nanotubes. In the Russian Doll model, sheets of graphite are arranged in concentric cylinders, e.g., a (0,8) single-walled nanotube (SWNT) within a larger (0,17) single-walled nanotube. In the Parchment model, a single sheet of graphite is rolled in around itself, resembling a scroll of parchment or a rolled newspaper. The interlayer distance in multi-walled nanotubes is close to the distance between graphene layers in graphite, approximately 3.4 Å. The Russian Doll structure is observed more commonly. Its individual shells can be described as SWNTs, which can be metallic or semiconducting. Because of statistical probability and restrictions on the relative diameters of the individual tubes, one of the shells, and thus the whole MWNT, is usually a zero-gap metal.
Double-walled carbon nanotubes (DWNT) form a special class of nanotubes because their morphology and properties are similar to those of SWNT but their resistance to chemicals is significantly improved. This is especially important when functionalization is required (this means grafting of chemical functions at the surface of the nanotubes) to add new properties to the CNT.
Properties of Carbon Nanotubes
Mechanical properties of carbon nanotubes
Carbon nanotube is one of the strongest materials in nature. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are basically long hollow cylinders of graphite sheets. Although a graphite sheet has a 2D symmetry, carbon nanotubes by geometry have different properties in axial and radial directions. It has been shown that CNTs are very strong in the axial direction. Young’s modulus on the order of 270 – 950 GPa and tensile strength of 11 – 63 GPa were obtained.
On the other hand, there was evidence that in the radial direction they are rather soft. The first transmission electron microscope observation of radial elasticity suggested that even the van der Waals forces can deform two adjacent nanotubes. Later, nanoindentations with atomic force microscope were performed by several groups to quantitatively measure radial elasticity of multiwalled carbon nanotubes and tapping/contact mode atomic force microscopy was recently performed on single-walled carbon nanotubes. Young’s modulus of on the order of several GPa showed that CNTs are in fact very soft in the radial direction.
Radial direction elasticity of CNTs is important especially for carbon nanotube composites where the embedded tubes are subjected to large deformation in the transverse direction under the applied load on the composite structure.
One of the main problems in characterizing the radial elasticity of CNTs is the knowledge about the internal radius of the CNT; carbon nanotubes with identical outer diameter may have different internal diameter (or the number of walls). Recently a method using atomic force microscope was introduced to find the exact number of layers and hence the internal diameter of the CNT. In this way, mechanical characterization is more accurate.
Optical properties of Carbon Nanotubes
Within materials science, the optical properties of carbon nanotubes refer specifically to the absorption, photoluminescence, and Raman spectroscopy of carbon nanotubes. Spectroscopic methods offer the possibility of quick and non-destructive characterization of relatively large amounts of carbon nanotubes. There is a strong demand for such characterization from the industrial point of view: numerous parameters of the nanotube synthesis can be changed, intentionally or unintentionally, to alter the nanotube quality. As shown below, optical absorption, photoluminescence and Raman spectroscopies allow quick and reliable characterization of this “nanotube quality” in terms of non-tubular carbon content, structure (chirality) of the produced nanotubes, and structural defects. Those features determine nearly any other properties such as optical, mechanical, and electrical properties.
Van Hove singularities
Optical properties of carbon nanotubes derive from electronic transitions within one-dimensional density of states (DOS). A typical feature of one-dimensional crystals is that their DOS is not a continuous function of energy, but it descends gradually and then increases in a discontinuous spike. In contrast, three-dimensional materials have continuous DOS. The sharp peaks found in one-dimensional materials are called Van Hove singularities.
The band structure of carbon nanotubes having certain (n, m) indexes can be easily calculated. A theoretical graph based on this calculations was designed in 1999 by Hiromichi Kataura to rationalize experimental findings. A Kataura plot relates the nanotube diameter and its bandgap energies for all nanotubes in a diameter range. The oscillating shape of every branch of the Kataura plot reflects the intrinsic strong dependence of the SWCNT properties on the (n, m) index rather than on its diameter. For example, (10, 0) and (8, 3) tubes have almost the same diameter, but very different properties: the former is a metal, but the latter is semiconductor.
Optical absorption of Carbon Nanotubes
Optical absorption in carbon nanotubes differs from absorption in conventional 3D materials by presence of sharp peaks (1D nanotubes) instead of an absorption threshold followed by an absorption increase (most 3D solids). Absorption in nanotubes originates from electronic transitions from the v2 to c2 (energy E22) or v1 to c1 (E11) levels, etc.
Raman scattering of Carbon Nanotubes
Raman spectroscopy has good spatial resolution (~0.5 micrometers) and sensitivity (single nanotubes); it requires only minimal sample preparation and is rather informative. Consequently, Raman spectroscopy is probably the most popular technique of carbon nanotube characterization. Raman scattering in SWCNTs is resonant, i.e., only those tubes are probed which have one of the bandgaps equal to the exciting laser energy. Several scattering modes dominate the SWCNT spectrum, as discussed below.
Similar to photoluminescence mapping, the energy of the excitation light can be scanned in Raman measurements, thus producing Raman maps. Those maps also contain oval-shaped features uniquely identifying (n, m) indices. Contrary to PL, Raman mapping detects not only semiconducting but also metallic tubes, and it is less sensitive to nanotube bundling than PL. However, requirement of a tunable laser and a dedicated spectrometer is a strong technical impediment.
Electrical properties of Carbon Nanotubes
Because of the symmetry and unique electronic structure of graphene, the structure of a nanotube strongly affects its electrical properties. For a given (n,m) nanotube, if n = m, the nanotube is metallic; if n − m is a multiple of 3, then the nanotube is semiconducting with a very small band gap, otherwise the nanotube is a moderate semiconductor. Thus all armchair (n = m) nanotubes are metallic, and nanotubes (6,4), (9,1), etc. are semiconducting.
However, this rule has exceptions, because curvature effects in small diameter carbon nanotubes can strongly influence electrical properties. Thus, a (5,0) SWCNT that should be semiconducting in fact is metallic according to the calculations. Likewise, vice versa– zigzag and chiral SWCNTs with small diameters that should be metallic have finite gap (armchair nanotubes remain metallic). In theory, metallic nanotubes can carry an electric current density of 4 × 109 A/cm2, which is more than 1,000 times greater than those of metals such as copper, where for copper interconnects current densities are limited by electromigration.
There have been reports of intrinsic superconductivity in carbon nanotubes. Many other experiments, however, found no evidence of superconductivity, and the validity of these claims of intrinsic superconductivity remains a subject of debate.
Thermal properties of Carbon Nanotubes
All nanotubes are expected to be very good thermal conductors along the tube, exhibiting a property known as “ballistic conduction”, but good insulators laterally to the tube axis. Measurements show that a SWNT has a room-temperature thermal conductivity along its axis of about 3500 W·m−1·K−1; compare this to copper, a metal well known for its good thermal conductivity, which transmits 385 W·m−1·K−1. A SWNT has a room-temperature thermal conductivity across its axis (in the radial direction) of about 1.52 W·m−1·K−1, which is about as thermally conductive as soil. The temperature stability of carbon nanotubes is estimated to be up to 2800 °C in vacuum and about 750 °C in air.
Defects of Carbon Nanotubes
As with any material, the existence of a crystallographic defect affects the material properties. Defects can occur in the form of atomic vacancies. High levels of such defects can lower the tensile strength by up to 85%. An important example is the Stone Wales defect, which creates a pentagon and heptagon pair by rearrangement of the bonds. Because of the very small structure of CNTs, the tensile strength of the tube is dependent on its weakest segment in a similar manner to a chain, where the strength of the weakest link becomes the maximum strength of the chain.
Crystallographic defects also affect the tube’s electrical properties. A common result is lowered conductivity through the defective region of the tube. A defect in armchair-type tubes (which can conduct electricity) can cause the surrounding region to become semiconducting, and single monoatomic vacancies induce magnetic properties.
Crystallographic defects strongly affect the tube’s thermal properties. Such defects lead to phonon scattering, which in turn increases the relaxation rate of the phonons. This reduces the mean free path and reduces the thermal conductivity of nanotube structures. Phonon transport simulations indicate that substitutional defects such as nitrogen or boron will primarily lead to scattering of high-frequency optical phonons. However, larger-scale defects such as Stone Wales defects cause phonon scattering over a wide range of frequencies, leading to a greater reduction in thermal conductivity.
Toxicity of Carbon Nanotubes
The toxicity of carbon nanotubes has been an important question in nanotechnology. Such research has just begun. The data are still fragmentary and subject to criticism. Preliminary results highlight the difficulties in evaluating the toxicity of this heterogeneous material. Parameters such as structure, size distribution, surface area, surface chemistry, surface charge, and agglomeration state as well as purity of the samples, have considerable impact on the reactivity of carbon nanotubes. However, available data clearly show that, under some conditions, nanotubes can cross membrane barriers, which suggests that, if raw materials reach the organs, they can induce harmful effects such as inflammatory and fibrotic reactions.
Synthesis of Carbon Nanotubes
Techniques have been developed to produce nanotubes in sizeable quantities, including arc discharge, laser ablation, high-pressure carbon monoxide (HiPco), and chemical vapor deposition (CVD). Most of these processes take place in vacuum or with process gases. CVD growth of CNTs can occur in vacuum or at atmospheric pressure. Large quantities of nanotubes can be synthesized by these methods; advances in catalysis and continuous growth processes are making CNTs more commercially viable.
Nanotubes were observed in 1991 in the carbon soot of graphite electrodes during an arc discharge, by using a current of 100 amps, that was intended to produce fullerenes. However the first macroscopic production of carbon nanotubes was made in 1992 by two researchers at NEC’s Fundamental Research Laboratory. The method used was the same as in 1991. During this process, the carbon contained in the negative electrode sublimates because of the high-discharge temperatures. Because nanotubes were initially discovered using this technique, it has been the most widely used method of nanotube synthesis.
The yield for this method is up to 30% by weight and it produces both single- and multi-walled nanotubes with lengths of up to 50 micrometers with few structural defects.
In the laser ablation process, a pulsed laser vaporizes a graphite target in a high-temperature reactor while an inert gas is bled into the chamber. Nanotubes develop on the cooler surfaces of the reactor as the vaporized carbon condenses. A water-cooled surface may be included in the system to collect the nanotubes.
This process was developed by Dr. Richard Smalley and co-workers at Rice University, who at the time of the discovery of carbon nanotubes, were blasting metals with a laser to produce various metal molecules. When they heard of the existence of nanotubes they replaced the metals with graphite to create multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Later that year the team used a composite of graphite and metal catalyst particles (the best yield was from a cobalt and nickel mixture) to synthesize single-walled carbon nanotubes.
The laser ablation method yields around 70% and produces primarily single-walled carbon nanotubes with a controllable diameter determined by the reaction temperature. However, it is more expensive than either arc discharge or chemical vapor deposition.
Chemical vapor deposition (CVD)
During CVD, a substrate is prepared with a layer of metal catalyst particles, most commonly nickel, cobalt, iron, or a combination. The metal nanoparticles can also be produced by other ways, including reduction of oxides or oxides solid solutions. The diameters of the nanotubes that are to be grown are related to the size of the metal particles. This can be controlled by patterned (or masked) deposition of the metal, annealing, or by plasma etching of a metal layer. The substrate is heated to approximately 700°C. To initiate the growth of nanotubes, two gases are bled into the reactor: a process gas (such as ammonia, nitrogen or hydrogen) and a carbon-containing gas (such as acetylene, ethylene, ethanol or methane). Nanotubes grow at the sites of the metal catalyst; the carbon-containing gas is broken apart at the surface of the catalyst particle, and the carbon is transported to the edges of the particle, where it forms the nanotubes. This mechanism is still being studied. The catalyst particles can stay at the tips of the growing nanotube during the growth process, or remain at the nanotube base, depending on the adhesion between the catalyst particle and the substrate. Thermal catalytic decomposition of hydrocarbon has become an active area of research and can be a promising route for the bulk production of CNTs. Fluidised bed reactor is the most widely used reactor for CNT preparation. Scale-up of the reactor is the major challenge.
CVD is a common method for the commercial production of carbon nanotubes. For this purpose, the metal nanoparticles are mixed with a catalyst support such as MgO or Al2O3 to increase the surface area for higher yield of the catalytic reaction of the carbon feedstock with the metal particles.
Applications of Carbon Nanotubes
Current use and application of nanotubes has mostly been limited to the use of bulk nanotubes, which is a mass of rather unorganized fragments of nanotubes. Bulk nanotube materials may never achieve a tensile strength similar to that of individual tubes, but such composites may, nevertheless, yield strengths sufficient for many applications. Bulk carbon nanotubes have already been used as composite fibers in polymers to improve the mechanical, thermal and electrical properties of the bulk product.
Potential applications of carbon Nanotubes
The strength and flexibility of carbon nanotubes makes them of potential use in controlling other nanoscale structures, which suggests they will have an important role in nanotechnology engineering. The highest tensile strength of an individual multi-walled carbon nanotube has been tested to be is 63 GPa. Carbon nanotubes were found in Damascus steel from the 17th century, possibly helping to account for the legendary strength of the swords made of it.
Structural applications of CNTs
Because of the carbon nanotube’s superior mechanical properties, many structures have been proposed ranging from everyday items like clothes and sports gear to combat jackets and space elevators. However, the space elevator will require further efforts in refining carbon nanotube technology, as the practical tensile strength of carbon nanotubes can still be greatly improved.
Application of CNTs In electrical circuits
Nanotube-based transistors, also known as carbon nanotube field-effect transistors (CNTFETs), have been made that operate at room temperature and that are capable of digital switching using a single electron. However, one major obstacle to realization of nanotubes has been the lack of technology for mass production. In 2001 IBM researchers demonstrated how metallic nanotubes can be destroyed, leaving semiconducting ones behind for use as transistors. Their process is called “constructive destruction,” which includes the automatic destruction of defective nanotubes on the wafer. This process, however, only gives control over the electrical properties on a statistical scale.
As paper batteries
A paper battery is a battery engineered to use a paper-thin sheet of cellulose (which is the major constituent of regular paper, among other things) infused with aligned carbon nanotubes. The nanotubes act as electrodes; allowing the storage devices to conduct electricity. The battery, which functions as both a lithium-ion battery and a supercapacitor, can provide a long, steady power output comparable to a conventional battery, as well as a supercapacitor’s quick burst of high energy—and while a conventional battery contains a number of separate components, the paper battery integrates all of the battery components in a single structure, making it more energy efficient.
One of the promising applications of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) is their use in solar panels, due to their strong UV/Vis-NIR absorption characteristics. Research has shown that they can provide a sizeable increase in efficiency, even at their current unoptimized state.
In addition to being able to store electrical energy, there has been some research in using carbon nanotubes to store hydrogen to be used as a fuel source. By taking advantage of the capillary effects of the small carbon nanotubes, it is possible to condense gasses in high density inside single-walled nanotubes. This allows for gasses, most notably hydrogen (H2), to be stored at high densities without being condensed into a liquid. Potentially, this storage method could be used on vehicles in place of gas fuel tanks for a hydrogen-powered car. A current issue regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles is the onboard storage of the fuel. Current storage methods involve cooling and condensing the H2 gas to a liquid state for storage which causes a loss of potential energy between (25 – 45%) when compared to the energy associated with the gaseous state. Storage using SWNTs would allow one to keep the H2 in its gaseous state, thereby increasing the storage effciency. This method allows for a volume to energy ratio slightly smaller to that of current gas powered vehicles, allowing for a slightly lower but comparable range.
Discovery of Carbon Nanotubes
In 1952 L. V. Radushkevich and V. M. Lukyanovich published clear images of 50 nanometer diameter tubes made of carbon in the Soviet Journal of Physical Chemistry. This discovery was largely unnoticed, as the article was published in the Russian language, and Western scientists’ access to Soviet press was limited during the Cold War. It is likely that carbon nanotubes were produced before this date, but the invention of the transmission electron microscope (TEM) allowed direct visualization of these structures.
Carbon nanotubes have been produced and observed under a variety of conditions prior to 1991. A paper by Oberlin, Endo, and Koyama published in 1976 clearly showed hollow carbon fibers with nanometer-scale diameters using a vapor-growth technique. Additionally, the authors show a TEM image of a nanotube consisting of a single wall of graphene. Later, Endo has referred to this image as a single-walled nanotube.
In 1979, John Abrahamson presented evidence of carbon nanotubes at the 14th Biennial Conference of Carbon at Pennsylvania State University. The conference paper described carbon nanotubes as carbon fibers that were produced on carbon anodes during arc discharge. A characterization of these fibers was given as well as hypotheses for their growth in a nitrogen atmosphere at low pressures.
In 1981, a group of Soviet scientists published the results of chemical and structural characterization of carbon nanoparticles produced by a thermocatalytical disproportionation of carbon monoxide. Using TEM images and XRD patterns, the authors suggested that their “carbon multi-layer tubular crystals” were formed by rolling graphene layers into cylinders. They speculated that by rolling graphene layers into a cylinder, many different arrangements of graphene hexagonal nets are possible. They suggested two possibilities of such arrangements: circular arrangement (armchair nanotube) and a spiral, helical arrangement (chiral tube).
In 1987, Howard G. Tennett of Hyperion Catalysis was issued a U.S. patent for the production of “cylindrical discrete carbon fibrils” with a “constant diameter between about 3.5 and about 70 nanometers…, length 102 times the diameter, and an outer region of multiple essentially continuous layers of ordered carbon atoms and a distinct inner core….”
Iijima’s discovery of multi-walled carbon nanotubes in the insoluble material of arc-burned graphite rods in 1991 and Mintmire, Dunlap, and White’s independent prediction that if single-walled carbon nanotubes could be made, then they would exhibit remarkable conducting properties helped create the initial buzz that is now associated with carbon nanotubes. Nanotube research accelerated greatly following the independent discoveries by Bethune at IBM and Iijima at NEC of single-walled carbon nanotubes and methods to specifically produce them by adding transition-metal catalysts to the carbon in an arc discharge. The arc discharge technique was well-known to produce the famed Buckminster fullerene on a preparative scale, and these results appeared to extend the run of accidental discoveries relating to fullerenes. The original observation of fullerenes in mass spectrometry was not anticipated, and the first mass-production technique by Krätschmer and Huffman was used for several years before realizing that it produced fullerenes.
The discovery of nanotubes remains a contentious issue. Many believe that Iijima’s report in 1991 is of particular importance because it brought carbon nanotubes into the awareness of the scientific community as a whole.