Clemson researchers putting nanotubes into action [Anderson Independent Mail, S.C. :: ]
(Anderson Independent-Mail (SC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 26--PENDLETON -- Aluminum foil has been used for decades to preserve food, and now a team of Clemson University researchers is using it to preserve energy.
The work, funded through a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is aimed at finding ways to better store energy with cheap, readily available materials such as aluminum foil. It comes with broad manufacturing applications, including improved electricity distribution from solar cells and windmills, more efficient computers and better energy storage for hybrid and electric automobiles.
"We want to convert this into an affordable technology," said Apparao Rao, director of the Clemson Nanomaterials Center. "We really envision an industrial, scalable setup."
Nanotubes are microscopic carbon structures -- each a fraction of the width of a human hair -- capable of conducting energy. They are used to make products ranging from tennis rackets to water filtration systems to semiconductors. Zyvex Technologies, a Columbus, Ohio-based company, has built a boat using nanotubes to make a much lighter hull -- the Pirahna has a range of 2,800 miles before needing to be refueled.
Rao, his colleagues and students are coating rolls of aluminum foil and other materials with nanotubes to create better capacitors -- devices commonly used in concert with batteries to store electricity and regulate voltage.
The researchers grow their own nanotubes in a processor, which the aluminum foil passes through in a roll-to-roll process similar to newspaper printing. The foil is heat treated, allowing the nanotubes to stick onto its surface. Lignin, a wood byproduct, is added afterward to help with storage. Another of their methods uses nanotubes sprayed onto paper -- called buckypaper. The end products can be stamped as needed and rolled up for easy storage.
Mark Roberts, one of Rao's colleagues, compares the performance of the end product with that of the lead-acid batteries found in vehicles. The advantage comes from using easily recycled materials.
"Our capacitors have their value, and they have their limitations," Roberts said. "But they're nontoxic, environmentally friendly materials that can fill a role in our energy landscape. The lignin is biorenewable and buckypaper can be recycled. ... At the end of the day, we want something that is cost-effective and efficient."
The researchers intend to reach out this year to electronic component makers around the state -- Simpsonville-based KEMET Electronics is a likely target -- to begin translating the prototypes and research into an industrial setting. The relationship would resemble Clemson's engineering faculty and students partnerships with BMW, Michelin and other manufacturers through the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research campus in Greenville.
"At some point we will need industrial partners to come and work with us," Rao said. "We can partner with South Carolina companies and industries and actually help the economy."
These capacitors won't be turning up in cars or cellphones soon, however. The components have to be cheap enough to build and sell that companies will want to retool their production facilities to make them.
"This has applications on many different levels, but each level presents different engineering problems," said Ramakrishna Podila, a Clemson graduate and physics faculty member. "The bottleneck is scalability."
Podila is working with Rao and Roberts on the project. His work uses lasers and nanotubes to replace the circuits on motherboards, which would allow computers to run faster and more efficiently.
The team is a quarter of the way through its four-year project. Students are getting lab time to prepare for careers in nanotube and related technologies. Roberts, Rao and Podila plan to publish papers about 10 different areas of their research so far and have reached out to peers at other institutions for review and comment -- all conditions attached to the NSF grant. There is also a patent pending, and more likely on the horizon.
Rao is heartened by the progress made thus far, but he's not ready to make any bold predictions.
"This is just past year one, so it is too early to call any shots," Rao said.
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