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Michael De Volder, Engineering Department - IfM

Studying at Cambridge



Why Carbon Nanotechnology?


This group focuses on the manufacturing of nanoparticles and well organized structures containing many nanoparticles. More generally, the field of nanotechnology focusses on small scale particles and devices. For instance, some of the particles we study such as Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) can have diameters of less than 1 nm, this is roughly 100.000 times smaller than a human hair. At the same time these tubes can reach very long lengths, up to more than half a meter (more info).  This is a typical example of a one dimensional (1D) nanoparticle because it extends in one dimension, in contrast 2D materials such as graphene are essentially only one atom thick, but can extend in two lateral directions. Finally, 0D nanoparticles are typically more or less spherically shaped nanoscale material "dots", a well-known example of these are C60 "Bucky balls".  In my research, we seek new fabrication methods for organizing these nanoparticles into 3D superstructures consisting of well-organized nanoparticles. For this, we study the interactions between the nanoparticles as well as methods for packing and orgainizing them into well-defined structures. We mainly use carbon nanoparticles as a structural backbone, but hybrid and other particles are being developed as well.  

Carbon Nanoparticles

 Particles consisting entirely out of carbon atoms such as C60, CNTs and graphene have been pivotal in attracting the interest of the general public, scientists and industry in nanotechnology. The latter can best be quantified by the production capacity of CNTs, which now exceeds 5000 tons/year (see inset).

(Top) Evolution of the production capacity of CNTs over the past years, along with numbers of yearly publications and patents. (Bottom) CNT application Milestones [De Volder et al, Science, 2013]

Graphene is probably the most intensively studied form of carbon nanoparticles. It consists of a single-atom thick packing of carbon atoms in a honeycomb lattice (SP2 hybridized bonds). One way to think of this material is of a single layer of graphite, the material found in pencil lead. CNTs on the other hand are seamless cylinders of one or more layers of graphene (denoted single-wall,SWNT, or multiwall, MWNT), with open or closed ends. Because of the exceptional properties of the carbon-carbon bonds and the nanoscale geometry of these nanoparticles, they show properties unlike any other engineering material. When considering the cross-sectional area of the CNT walls only, tensile strength of 100 GPa, and an elastic modulus approaching 1 TPa have been measured for individual CNTs (and graphene sheets). This mean that these materials are about 5 times stiffer than stainless steel, while at the same time, they are much lighter. Their thermal and electrical properties are equally fascinating (more info).

Importantly, however, these properties are typically measured in individualized high quality nanoparticles. Many engineering applications of these materials on the other hand require tens to millions of nanoparticles to be assembled into one device, and unfortunately, to date, the properties of such nanoparticle assemblies are often disappointing. It is therefore necessary to conduct more research to understand the properties and fabrication of assemblies of these particles. At the same time it should be stressed that both carbon nanotubes and graphene are already implemented industrially in a variety of applications. More information on this topic can be found in following review papers on carbon nanotubes and graphene applications.

Our Research

Michael De Volder's Nanomanufacturing group focuses on the development of new processes to enhance the properties of nanoparticle assemblies. This includes CNTs, graphene, and amorphous carbon nanowires but also other nanoparticles, including metal oxides, polymers and hybrid materials. We are interested in processes that allow tuning nanoscale chemistry, microscale morphology, in conjunction with large scale production.   

If you are interested in specific research activities, please visit our project pages, read our publications, or simply have a look at some of the stunning images that were produced during our research. We are also constantly seeking new skilled researchers, whom we encourage to look at our jobs page.