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Laser-based Process Purifies Carbon Nanotubes

Photonics.com
Jan 2007
GAITHERSBURG, Md., Jan. 2, 2007 -- Conventional ways of purifying carbon nanotubes -- necessary if they are to be used in the future as ultrastrong fibers, electrical wires in molecular devices or hydrogen fuel cell components -- are expensive processes that often result in some tubes being damaged or destroyed. Now a simpler method has been discovered that safely cleans the tubes by zapping them with carefully calibrated laser pulses. 

When carbon nanotubes -- the cylindrical form of the fullerene family -- are synthesized by any of several processes, a significant amount of contaminants such as soot, graphite and other impurities also is formed. Purifying the product is an important issue for commercial application of nanotubes.

NanotubesBefore.jpg
NanotubesAfter.jpg

Before (top) and after electron microscope images of a pyroelectric detector coated with single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) visually demonstrate the effect of the laser cleaning process. In addition, the SWNTs look visibly blacker after laser treatment, suggesting less graphitic material and increased porosity. (Images: NIST)
In a forthcoming issue of Chemical Physics Letters, a research team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., describes how pulses from an excimer laser greatly reduce the amount of carbon impurities in a sample of bulk carbon single-walled nanotubes without destroying the tubes.

Both visual examination and quantitative measurements of material structure and composition verify that the resulting sample is "cleaner." The exact cleaning process may need to be slightly modified depending on how the nanotubes are made, the authors note. But the general approach is simpler and less costly than conventional "wet chemistry" processes, which can damage the tubes and also require removal of solvents afterwards.

"Controlling and determining tube type is sort of the holy grail right now with carbon nanotubes. Purity is a key variable," said NIST physicist John Lehman, who leads the research. "Over the last 15 years there's been lots of promise, but when you buy some material you realize that a good percentage of it is not quite what you hoped. Anyone who thinks they're going into business with nanotubes will realize that purification is an important -- and expensive -- step. There is a lot of work to be done."

The new method is believed to work because, if properly tuned, the laser light transfers energy to the vibrations and rotations in carbon molecules in both the nanotubes and contaminants. The nanotubes, however, are more stable, so most of the energy is transferred to the impurities, which then react readily with oxygen or ozone in the surrounding air and are eliminated.

Success was measured by examining the energy profiles of the light scattered by the bulk nanotube sample after exposure to different excimer laser conditions. Each form of carbon produces a different signature. Changes in the light energy as the sample was exposed to higher laser power indicated a reduction in impurities. Before-and-after electron micrographs visually confirmed the initial presence of impurities (i.e., material that did not appear rope-like) as well as a darkening of the nanotubes post-treatment, suggesting less soot and increased porosity.

The researchers developed the new method while looking for quantitative methods for evaluating laser damage to nanotube coatings for next-generation NIST optical power measurement standards. The responsivity of a prototype increased five percent after the nanotube coating was cleaned, the scientists said.

For more information, visit: www.nist.gov


GLOSSARY
excimer laser
A rare-gas halide or rare-gas metal vapor laser emitting in the ultraviolet (126 to 558 nm) that operates on electronic transitions of molecules, up to that point diatomic, whose ground state is essentially repulsive. Excitation may be by E-beam or electric discharge. Lasing gases include ArCl, ArF, KrCl, KrF, XeCl and XeF.
light
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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