Buckytubes have extraordinary electrical conductivity, heat conductivity and mechanical properties. They are probably the best electron field-emitter possible. They are polymers of pure carbon and can be reacted and manipulated using the tremendously rich chemistry of carbon. This provides opportunity to modify the structure and to optimise solubility and dispersion.
Very significantly, buckytubes are molecularly perfect, which means that they are free of property-degrading flaws in the nanotube structure. Their material properties can therefore approach closely the very high levels intrinsic to them.
These extraordinary characteristics give buckytubes potential in numerous applications.
Buckytubes are the best known field emitters of any material. This is understandable, given their high electrical conductivity, and the unbeatable sharpness of their tip (the sharper the tip, the more concentrated will be an electric field, leading to field emission; this is the same reason lightening rods are sharp). The sharpness of the tip also means that they emit at especially low voltage, an important fact for building electrical devices that utilize this feature. Buckytubes can carry an astonishingly high current density, possibly as high as 1013 A/cm2. Furthermore, the current is extremely stable [B.Q. Wei, et al. Appl. Phys. Lett. 79 1172 (2001)].
An immediate application of this behaviour receiving considerable interest is in field-emission flat-panel displays. Instead of a single electron gun, as in a traditional cathode ray tube display, here there is a separate electron gun (or many) for each pixel in the display. The high current density, low turn-on and operating voltage, and steady, long-lived behaviour make buckytubes attract field emitters to enable this application.
Other applications utilising the field-emission characteristics of buckytubes include: general cold-cathode lighting sources, lightning arrestors, and electron microscope sources.
Much of the history of plastics over the last half century has been as a replacement for metal. For structural applications, plastics have made tremendous headway, but not where electrical conductivity is required, plastics being famously good electrical insulators.
This deficiency is overcome by loading plastics up with conductive fillers, such as carbon black and graphite fibres (the larger ones used to make golf clubs and tennis racquets). The loading required to provide the necessary conductivity is typically high, however, resulting in heavy parts, and more importantly, plastic parts whose structural properties are highly degraded.
It is well established that the higher aspect ratio of filler, the lower loading required to achieve a given level of conductivity. Buckytubes are ideal in this sense, since they have the highest aspect ratio of any carbon fibre. In addition, their natural tendency to form ropes provides inherently very long conductive pathways even at ultra-low loadings.
Applications that exploit this behaviour of buckytubes include EMI/RFI shielding composites and coatings for enclosures, gaskets, and other uses; electrostatic dissipation (ESD), and antistatic materials and (even transparent!) coatings; and radar-absorbing materials.
Buckytubes have the intrinsic characteristics desired in material used as electrodes in batteries and capacitors, two technologies of rapidly increasing importance. Buckytubes have a tremendously high surface area (~1000 m2/g), good electrical conductivity, and very importantly, their linear geometry makes their surface highly accessible to the electrolyte.
Research has shown that buckytubes have the highest reversible capacity of any carbon material for use in lithium-ion batteries [B. Gao, Chem. Phys. Lett. 327, 69 (2000)]. In addition, buckytubes are outstanding materials for supercapacitor electrodes [R.Z. Ma, et al., Science in China Series E-Technological Sciences 43 178 (2000)] and are now being marketed.
Buckytubes also have applications in a variety of fuel cell components. They have a number of properties including high surface area and thermal conductivity that make them useful as electrode catalyst supports in PEM fuel cells. They may also be used in gas diffusion layers as well as current collectors because of their high electrical conductivity. Buckytubes' high strength and toughness to weight characteristics may also prove valuable as part of composite components in fuel cells that are deployed in transport applications where durability is extremely important.
Conductive Adhesives and Connectors
The same issues that make buckytubes attractive as conductive fillers for use in shielding, ESD materials, etc., make them attractive for electronics materials, such as adhesives and other connectors (e.g., solders).
The idea of building electronic circuits out of the essential building blocks of materials - molecules - has seen a revival the past five years, and is a key component of nanotechnology. In any electronic circuit, but particularly as dimensions shrink to the nanoscale, the interconnections between switches and other active devices become increasingly important.
Their geometry, electrical conductivity, and ability to be precisely derived, make buckytubes the ideal candidates for the connections in molecular electronics. In addition, they have been demonstrated as switches themselves.
The record-setting anisotropic thermal conductivity of buckytubes is enabling applications where heat needs to move from one place to another. Such an application is electronics, particularly advanced computing, where uncooled chips now routinely reach over 100oC.
CNI's technology for creating aligned structures and ribbons of buckytubes [D.Walters, et al., Chem. Phys. Lett. 338, 14 (2001)] is a step toward realising incredibly efficient heat conduits. In addition, composites with buckytubes have been shown to dramatically increase the bulk thermal conductivity at small loadings.
The world-record properties of buckytubes are not limited to electrical and thermal conductivities, but also include mechanical properties, such as stiffness, toughness, and strength. These properties lead to a wealth of applications exploiting them, including advanced composites requiring high values in one or more of these properties.
Fibres and Fabrics
Fibres spun of pure buckytubes have recently been demonstrated [R.H. Baughman, Science 290, 1310 (2000)] and are undergoing rapid development, along with buckytube composite fibres. Such super strong fibres will have applications including body and vehicle armour, transmission line cables, woven fabrics and textiles.
Buckytubes have an intrinsically high surface area; in fact, every atom is not just on a surface - each atom is on two surfaces, the inside and outside! Combined with the ability to attach essentially any chemical species to their sidewalls provides an opportunity for unique catalyst supports. Their electrical conductivity may also be exploited in the search for new catalysts and catalytic behaviour.
The exploration of buckytubes in biomedical applications is just underway, but has significant potential. Cells have been shown to grow on buckytubes, so they appear to have no toxic effect. The cells also do not adhere to the buckytubes, potentially giving rise to applications such as coatings for prosthetics and anti-fouling coatings for ships.
The ability to chemically modify the sidewalls of buckytubes also leads to biomedical applications such as vascular stents, and neuron growth and regeneration.
There is a wealth of other potential applications for buckytubes, such as solar collection; nanoporous filters; catalyst supports; and coatings of all sorts. There are almost certainly many unanticipated applications for this remarkable material that will come to light in the years ahead and which may prove to be the most important and valuable of all.