Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
“The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including biological and structural health monitoring sensors,” explained Sameh Tawfick, an assistant professor of mechanical science and engineering at Illinois. “Aligned carbon nanotube sheets are suitable for a wide range of application spanning the micro- to the macro-scales including Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), supercapacitor electrodes, electrical cables, artificial muscles, and multi-functional composites.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to apply the principles of fracture mechanics to design and study the toughness nano-architectured CNT textiles. The theoretical framework of fracture mechanics is shown to be very robust for a variety of linear and non-linear materials.”
Carbon nanotubes, which have been around since the early nineties, have been hailed as a “wonder material” for numerous nanotechnology applications, and rightly so. These tiny cylindrical structures made from wrapped graphene sheets have diameter of a few nanometers — about 1000 times thinner than a human hair, yet, a single carbon nanotube is stronger than steel and carbon fibers, more conductive than copper, and lighter than aluminum.
Beginning with catalyst deposited on a silicon oxide substrate, vertically aligned carbon nanotubes were synthesized via chemical vapor deposition in the form of parallel lines of 5m width, 10m length, and 20-60m heights.
“This work combines careful synthesis, and delicate experimentation and modeling,” Tawfick said. “Flexible electronics are subject to repeated bending and stretching, which could cause their mechanical failure. This new CNT textile, with simple flexible encapsulation in an elastomer matrix, can be used in smart textiles, smart skins, and a variety of flexible electronics. Owing to their extremely high toughness, they represent an attractive material, which can replace thin metal films to enhance device reliability.”