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Carbon Nanotubes

Mixed with other materials, such as octane liquid, carbon nanotubes exhibit diminished thermal conductivity.

Carbon Nanotubes

High Resistance in Composites?

Superb conductors of heat and infinitesimal in size, carbon nanotubes might be used to prevent overheating in next-generation computing devices or as fillers to enhance thermal conductivity of insulating materials, such as durable plastics or engine oil. But a Rensselaer research team has discovered that the nanotubes’ role as thermal superconductors is greatly diminished when mixed with materials such as polymers that make up plastics.

“Carbon nanotubes are superior thermal conductors by themselves. But, that doesn’t mean they will exhibit the same level of high conductivity when integrated into other materials,” says Pawel Keblinski, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and head of Rensselaer’s research team. His team’s research is published in the November 2003 issue of Nature Materials.

A global team of researchers was optimistic when a one-percent fraction of carbon nanotubes was added to epoxy and other organic materials, and the thermal conductivity of the newly created composites increased two- or threefold. But, using conventional engineering estimates, Keblinski noted that the composites’ conductivity should have had 50-fold increases.

Why such disparity between the experiment and the expectations?

“Atoms forming stiff carbon nanotubes vibrate at much higher frequencies than the atoms in the surrounding material. This leads to high interfacial resistance for the heat flow between the tubes and the other elements,” Keblinski says.

Energy exchange between two different elements is immediate and plentiful when frequencies in both are similar. Interfacial resistance happens when the frequencies are different, and the heat energy has a difficult time taking the leap from one element to the next.

To test the magnitude of the problem, Keblinski and his Rensselaer collaborators performed computer simulations on a model nanotube composite. Meanwhile, another research group headed by David Cahill at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign heated real carbon nano-tubes with a laser.

From the rate of cooling, in both the simulation and the physical experiment, the researchers derived the value of the interfacial resistance. In both instances, they found the resistance is so high that it limits the thermal conductivity of the nanotubes.

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Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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