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Nanotechnology

Helping Nanotubes Get Into Shape

Rensselaer researchers have developed a new method of compacting carbon nanotubes into dense bundles which are efficient conductors and could one day replace copper as the primary interconnects used on computer chips. They may also hasten the transition to next-generation, 3-D stacked chips.

Theoretical studies show that carbon nanotubes, if packed closely enough together, should be able to outperform copper as an electrical conductor. But because of the way carbon nanotubes are grown — in sparse nanoscale “forests” where carbon molecules compete for growth-inducing catalysts — scientists have been unable to successfully grow tightly packed bundles.

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Carbon nanotube bundle before (left) and afer (right) densification.
Images provided by Zhengchun Liu.
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James Jian-Qiang Lu, associate professor of physics and electrical engineering, together with his research associate Zhengchun Liu, decided to investigate how to “densify” carbon nanotube bundles after they are already grown.

The team discovered that by immersing vertically grown carbon nanotube bundles into a liquid organic solvent and allowing them to dry, the nanotubes pull close together into a dense bundle. Lu attributes the densification process to capillary coalescence, which is the same physical principle that allows moisture to move up a piece of tissue paper that is dipped into water.

The process boosts the density of these carbon nanotube bundles by five to 25 times. The higher the density, the better they can conduct electricity, Lu says. Several factors, including nanotube height, diameter, and spacing, affect the resulting density, Liu adds.

“It’s a significant and critical step toward the realization of carbon nanotube interconnects with better performance than copper,” Lu says. “But there’s still a lot of work to do before this technology can be integrated into industrial applications.”

Despite his initial successes, Lu says the density results obtained are not ideal and carbon nanotubes would have to be further compacted before they can outperform copper as a conductor. The research team is exploring various methods to achieve ever-higher density and higher quality of carbon nanotube bundles.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.