Given their size, strength and electrical properties, carbon nanotubes — tiny, hollow cylinders made of carbon atoms — hold promise for a range of applications in electronics, medicine and other fields. Despite industrial development of nanotubes in recent years, however, very little is known about how they form or the environmental impacts of their manufacture
It turns out that one process commonly used to produce carbon nanotubes, or CNTs, may release several hundred tons of chemicals, including greenhouse gases and hazardous air pollutants, into the air each year. In a paper published last week on the ACS Nano website, the researchers report that in experiments, removing one step in that process — a step that involves heating carbon-based gases and adding key reactive “ingredients” — reduced emissions of harmful by-products at least tenfold and, in some cases, by a factor of 100. It also cut the amount of energy used in the process by half.
“We were able to do all of this and still have good CNT growth,” says Desiree Plata, who led the research between 2007 and 2009 as a doctoral student in MIT’s joint program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Now a visiting assistant professor in MIT’s Departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Plata collaborated on the paper with several MIT and University of Michigan researchers, including Philip Gschwend, Ford Professor of Engineering in CEE, and John Hart, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan. The study is part of a long-term effort to change the approach to material development so that environmental chemists work with the young CNT industry to develop methods to prevent or limit undesirable environmental consequences.
In their study, Plata and her colleagues analyzed a common CNT manufacturing process known as catalytic chemical vapor deposition. In this method, manufacturers combine hydrogen with a “feedstock gas,” such as methane, carbon monoxide or ethylene. They then heat the combination in a reactor that contains a metal catalyst like nickel or iron, which then forms CNTs. The problem is that once the CNTs form, unreacted compounds (up to 97 percent of the initial feedstock) are often released into the air.
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