Microwaved nanotubes come up clean for US and Welsh scientists

Scientists from Rice University in Houston, Texas and Swansea University have used a humble standard household microwave oven to develop a two-step process to clean carbon nanotubes.

Multiwalled nanotubes 1Basic nanotubes are good for many things, like forming into microelectronic components or electrically conductive fibres and composites; for more sensitive uses like drug delivery and solar panels, they need to be as pristine as possible.

Nanotubes form from metal catalysts in the presence of heated gas, but residues of those catalysts (usually iron) sometimes remain stuck on and inside the tubes. The catalyst remnants can be difficult to remove by physical or chemical means because the same carbon-laden gas used to make the tubes lets carbon atoms form encapsulating layers around the remaining iron, reducing the ability to remove it during purification.

In the new process, treating the tubes in open air in a microwave burns off the amorphous carbon. The nanotubes can then be treated with high-temperature chlorine to eliminate almost all of the extraneous particles.

The labs of chemists Dr Robert Hauge, Professor Andrew Barron and Dr Charles Dunnill led the study and the Rice and Swansea Universities teams’ process was revealed in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal RSC Advances.

Andrew Barron is the Charles W Duncan Jr–Welch Professor of Chemistry and a professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas. At Swansea University he is the Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, and leads the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) within the College of Engineering.  

‌Dr Robert Hauge is a pioneer in nanotube growth techniques. He is a distinguished faculty fellow in chemistry and in materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University.

And Dr Charles Dunnill is a senior lecturer at the Energy Safety Research Institute at Swansea University’s College of Engineering.

Co-authors of the study are Virginia Gomez, postdoctoral research assistant at Swansea University; Silvia Irusta, a professor at the University of Zaragoza, Spain; and Wade Adams, a senior faculty fellow in materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University.

“There are many ways to purify nanotubes, but at a cost,” said Professor Barron.

“The chlorine method developed by Dr Hauge has the advantage of not damaging the nanotubes, unlike other methods.  

“Unfortunately, many of the residual catalyst particles are surrounded by a carbon layer that stops the chlorine from reacting, and this is a problem for making high-purity carbon nanotubes.”

Multiwalled carbon nanotube 2The researchers gathered microscope images and spectroscopy data on batches of single-walled and multiwalled nanotubes before and after microwaving them in a 1,000-watt oven, and again after bathing them in an oxidizing bath of chlorine gas under high heat and pressure.

They found that once the iron particles were exposed to the microwave, it was much easier to get them to react with chlorine. The resulting volatile iron chloride was then removed.

Eliminating iron particles lodged inside large multiwalled nanotubes proved to be harder, but transmission electron microscope images showed their numbers, especially in single-walled tubes, to be greatly diminished.

“We would like to remove all the iron, but for many applications, residue within these tubes is less of an issue than if it were on the surface,” added Professor Barron.

“The presence of residual catalyst on the surface of carbon nanotubes can limit their use in biological or medical applications.”

The research was supported by Robert A Welch Foundation and the Welsh Government Sêr Cymru Programme.

A full copy of the research paper in RSC Advances can be accessed here.


Image 1: Multiwalled nanotubes before treatment with a Rice University/Swansea University process to remove catalyst residue from their surfaces and from inside. Courtesy of Virginia Goméz Jiménez/Swansea University.

Image 2: A multiwalled carbon nanotube cleaned with a process developed at Rice University and Swansea University shows iron catalyst residue has been removed from the surface, while most particles have been removed from inside the nanotube's walls. The process is expected to make nanotubes more suitable for applications like drug delivery and solar panels. Courtesy of Virginia Goméz Jiménez/Swansea University.