Slice nanotubes with sonic booms

BROWN (US) — It’s difficult to imagine getting a precise cut on a carbon nanotube, with a diameter 1/50,000th the thickness of a human hair. The trick, researchers say, is to squeeze and twist nanotubes using sonic booms.

The effect causes the single-walled carbon nanotubes to buckle at certain points at helical, 90-degree angles. These bent areas, or kinks, are “highly attractive intramolecular junctions for building molecular-scale electronics,” the researchers report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

“We can now design the cutting rate and the diameters we want to cut,” says Kyung-Suk Kim, professor of engineering at Brown University and the corresponding author on the paper. The finding could lead to better-quality nanotubes for potential use in automotive, electronics, optics, and other fields.

Making nanotubes 101
The basics of carbon nanotube manufacturing are known. Single-atom thin graphene sheets are immersed in solution (usually water), causing them to look like a plate of tangled spaghetti. The jumbled bundle of nanotubes is then blasted by high-intensity sound waves that create cavities (or partial vacuums) in the solution.

The bubbles that arise from these cavities expand and collapse so violently that the heat in each bubble’s core can reach more than 5,000 degrees Kelvin, close to the temperature on the surface of the sun. Meanwhile, each bubble compresses at an acceleration 100 billion times greater than gravity. Considering the terrific energy involved, it’s hardly surprising that the tubes come out at random lengths.

Technicians use sieves to get tubes of the desired length. The technique is inexact partly because no one was sure what caused the tubes to fracture.

Torn or squeezed?
Materials scientists initially thought the super-hot temperatures caused the nanotubes to tear. A group of German researchers proposed that it was the sonic boomlets caused by collapsing bubbles that pulled the tubes apart, like a rope tugged so violently at each end that it eventually rips.

Engineers at Brown and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology decided to investigate further. They crafted complex molecular dynamics simulations using an array of supercomputers to tease out what caused the carbon nanotubes to break.

They found that rather than being pulled apart, as the German researchers had thought, the tubes were being compressed mightily from both ends. This caused a buckling in a roughly five-nanometer section along the tubes called the compression-concentration zone. In that zone, the tube is twisted into alternating 90-degree-angle folds, so that it fairly resembles a helix.

That discovery still did not explain fully how the tubes are cut. Through more computerized simulations, the group learned the mighty force exerted by the bubbles’ sonic booms caused atoms to be shot off the tube’s lattice-like foundation like bullets from a machine gun.

“It’s almost as if an orange is being squeezed, and the liquid is shooting out sideways,” Kim says. “This kind of fracture by compressive atom ejection has never been observed before in any kind of materials.”

The team confirmed the computerized simulations through laboratory tests involving sonication and electron microscopy of single-walled carbon nanotubes.

The U.S. National Science Foundation and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology funded the work.

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