MIT researchers discover new way of producing electricity

Mar 07, 2010 by David Chandler
A carbon nanotube (shown in illustration) can produce a very rapid wave of power when it is coated by a layer of fuel and ignited, so that heat travels along the tube. Graphic: Christine Daniloff

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of scientists at MIT have discovered a previously unknown phenomenon that can cause powerful waves of energy to shoot through minuscule wires known as carbon nanotubes. The discovery could lead to a new way of producing electricity, the researchers say.

The phenomenon, described as thermopower waves, “opens up a new area of energy research, which is rare,” says Michael Strano, MIT’s Charles and Hilda Roddey Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, who was the senior author of a paper describing the new findings that appeared in on March 7. The lead author was Wonjoon Choi, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering.

Like a collection of flotsam propelled along the surface by waves traveling across the ocean, it turns out that a thermal wave — a moving pulse of heat — traveling along a microscopic wire can drive electrons along, creating an electrical current.

The key ingredient in the recipe is carbon nanotubes — submicroscopic hollow tubes made of a chicken-wire-like lattice of carbon atoms. These tubes, just a few billionths of a meter () in diameter, are part of a family of novel carbon molecules, including buckyballs and graphene sheets, that have been the subject of intensive worldwide research over the last two decades.

A previously unknown phenomenon

In the new experiments, each of these electrically and thermally conductive nanotubes was coated with a layer of a reactive fuel that can produce heat by decomposing. This fuel was then ignited at one end of the nanotube using either a or a high-voltage spark, and the result was a fast-moving thermal wave traveling along the length of the like a flame speeding along the length of a lit fuse. Heat from the fuel goes into the nanotube, where it travels thousands of times faster than in the fuel itself. As the heat feeds back to the fuel coating, a thermal wave is created that is guided along the nanotube. With a temperature of 3,000 Kelvin, this ring of heat speeds along the tube 10,000 times faster than the normal spread of this chemical reaction. The heating produced by that combustion, it turns out, also pushes electrons along the tube, creating a substantial electrical current.

Combustion waves — like this pulse of heat hurtling along a wire — “have been studied mathematically for more than 100 years,” Strano says, but he was the first to predict that such waves could be guided by a nanotube or nanowire and that this wave of heat could push an electrical current along that wire.

In the group’s initial experiments, Strano says, when they wired up the carbon nanotubes with their fuel coating in order to study the reaction, “lo and behold, we were really surprised by the size of the resulting voltage peak” that propagated along the wire.

After further development, the system now puts out energy, in proportion to its weight, about 100 times greater than an equivalent weight of lithium-ion battery.

The amount of power released, he says, is much greater than that predicted by thermoelectric calculations. While many semiconductor materials can produce an electric potential when heated, through something called the Seebeck effect, that effect is very weak in carbon. “There’s something else happening here,” he says. “We call it electron entrainment, since part of the current appears to scale with wave velocity.”

The thermal wave, he explains, appears to be entraining the electrical charge carriers (either electrons or electron holes) just as an ocean wave can pick up and carry a collection of debris along the surface. This important property is responsible for the high power produced by the system, Strano says.

Exploring possible applications

Because this is such a new discovery, he says, it’s hard to predict exactly what the practical applications will be. But he suggests that one possible application would be in enabling new kinds of ultra-small electronic devices — for example, devices the size of grains of rice, perhaps with sensors or treatment devices that could be injected into the body. Or it could lead to “environmental sensors that could be scattered like dust in the air,” he says.

In theory, he says, such devices could maintain their power indefinitely until used, unlike batteries whose charges leak away gradually as they sit unused. And while the individual nanowires are tiny, Strano suggests that they could be made in large arrays to supply significant amounts of power for larger devices.

The researchers also plan to pursue another aspect of their theory: that by using different kinds of reactive materials for the coating, the wave front could oscillate, thus producing an alternating current. That would open up a variety of possibilities, Strano says, because alternating current is the basis for radio waves such as cell phone transmissions, but present energy-storage systems all produce direct current. “Our theory predicted these oscillations before we began to observe them in our data,” he says.

Also, the present versions of the system have low efficiency, because a great deal of power is being given off as heat and light. The team plans to work on improving that.


PhysOrg.com iPhone Apps
PhysOrg.com Audio Podcasts / iTunes
Join PhysOrg.com on Facebook!
Follow PhysOrg.com on Twitter!

Explore further: Team reveals molecular structure of water at gold electrodes

Related Stories

Scientists Track Heat in Tiny Rolls of Carbon Atoms

Mar 02, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- IBM Research scientists today announced a landmark study in the field of nanoelectronics; the development and demonstration of novel techniques to measure the distribution of energy and heat in powered carbon ...

A traveling-wave engine to power deep space travel

Sep 17, 2004

A University of California scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and researchers from Northrop Grumman Space Technology have developed a novel method for generating electrical power for deep-space travel us ...

Space saving approach to satellite communications

Dec 05, 2005

Ken Teo and his team at the University of Cambridge have come up with a much more efficient and compact way to send signals from satellites. They have managed to use an array of carbon nanotubes to create a ...

Nanotubes find niche in electric switches

Mar 10, 2009

New research from Rice University and the University of Oulu in Oulu, Finland, finds that carbon nanotubes could significantly improve the performance of electrical commutators that are common in electric ...

Recommended for you

Quantum effects in nanometer-scale metallic structures

Oct 22, 2014

Plasmonic devices combine the 'super speed' of optics with the 'super small' of microelectronics. These devices exhibit quantum effects and show promise as possible ultrafast circuit elements, but current ...

User comments : 17

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
3.3 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2010
Sounds like a way to get energy directly from a pulsed plasma...
maxmc
Mar 07, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Caliban
2.3 / 5 (16) Mar 07, 2010
Sounds ridiculous to me-
Some form of energy-either electric or thermal- has to be used to ignite the combustible coating.
So, are they saying that each one of these little "batteries" will also require another battery to ignite them? Absurd!
And who wants untold numbers of tubes of nanochickenwire floating around in the air, water, food, their own cells, even?
I also notice that there are no numbers, once again, PHYSORG!
Obviuosly, the current produced here is miniscule, but what would it be if it was scaled up to an equivalent mass or volume to a standard Li battery JUST FOR COMPARISON PURPOSES?
The only way I can conceptualize this working in a meaningful, useful way would be to continuously rotate a ring of this through a fireproof barrier, timing the rpm to the velocity of the combustion wavefront to conduct away the current just before extinguished, or with some sort of brush/pickup arrangement.
Anyone got a better, or at least more to the point operation concept?
seneca
2.2 / 5 (6) Mar 07, 2010
Why not, but pyroelectric behavior of nanotubes is known for years..

http://www.azonan...wsID=484
Auxon
3.2 / 5 (5) Mar 07, 2010

I also notice that there are no numbers, once again, PHYSORG!
Obviuosly, the current produced here is miniscule, but what would it be if it was scaled up to an equivalent mass or volume to a standard Li battery JUST FOR COMPARISON PURPOSES?
[\q]

"After further development, the system now puts out energy, in proportion to its weight, about 100 times greater than an equivalent weight of lithium-ion battery." Hone up on those observational skills.
PinkElephant
4.5 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2010
With a temperature of 3,000 kelvins, this ring of heat speeds along the tube...
That's a pretty high temperature. Seems like the nanotube ought to be destroyed (or at least heavily damaged) in the process, so it's a one-off scheme.

Too bad. If the temperature could be lowered, and some sort of a cyclical system implemented along Caliban's line of though, maybe this could form the foundation for a much more efficient and flexible internal combustion engine (whose output would be electricity rather than direct mechanical rotation.)
Caliban
2 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2010
That is high temperature-slightly over 2700C- but what is the ignition temp/pressure for carbon nanotube?
I was wondering about the electrical output.
bottomlesssoul
2 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2010
Hey, something is wrong with the numbers. Li batteries are up to about 300 Wh/kg so 100x would be 30 kWh/kg which is 3x higher than any known chemical reaction.
Shootist
5 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2010
Hey, something is wrong with the numbers. Li batteries are up to about 300 Wh/kg so 100x would be 30 kWh/kg which is 3x higher than any known chemical reaction.


Which, in a round about way, was almost mentioned in the article.
Parsec
4.3 / 5 (9) Mar 08, 2010
Sounds ridiculous to me-
Some form of energy-either electric or thermal- has to be used to ignite the combustible coating.
So, are they saying that each one of these little "batteries" will also require another battery to ignite them? Absurd!
And who wants untold numbers of tubes of nanochickenwire floating around in the air, water, food, their own cells, even?
I also notice that there are no numbers, once again, PHYSORG!
Obviuosly, the current produced here is miniscule, but what would it be if it was scaled up to an equivalent mass or volume to a standard Li battery JUST FOR COMPARISON PURPOSES?
The only way I can conceptualize this working in a meaningful, useful way would be to continuously rotate a ring of this through a fireproof barrier, timing the rpm to the velocity of the combustion wavefront to conduct away the current just before extinguished, or with some sort of brush/pickup arrangement.


It must be nice to be so smart.
DracX
3 / 5 (1) Mar 08, 2010
Very interesting article, I will await new information and see where this technology leads.
dacron
not rated yet Mar 08, 2010
oh goody goody...phasers on stunned everybody!!!
baudrunner
not rated yet Mar 08, 2010
This seems to be a whole new take on the photoelectric effect, ie. stimulated electron emission using both heat, as in coated vacuum tube cathodes, and the photoelectric effect.

I can think of one application: the industry should concentrate on massive paralleling of nanotubes into macrotubule arrays, then combining many of those in parallel to provide a new type of cathode for VASIMR type plasma rocket engines, requiring much less energy input to get more wattage ouput.
CouchP
not rated yet Mar 08, 2010
If this is true, would it exceed the current Fuel Cell output of a similar size? If so, are thes reactions one shot or could you load them in teh same way a fuel cell would be?
El_Nose
5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
all i'm going to say is that MIT typically checks their numbers before they publish -- and often the only people good enough to double check them also work at MIT -- good luck finding a true whole in their logic
shadfurman
5 / 5 (1) Mar 09, 2010
@seneca I don't think thats the same effect at all. The article you referred to only discusses the conductance of heat in carbon nano-tubes, but doesn't mention anything about them generating electricity themselves.
ffrankblu
not rated yet Mar 17, 2010
I wonder if this is what causes the outer surface of the sun to be so much hotter than the core.
http://futurity.o...osphere/
rscalif
not rated yet Mar 23, 2010
Hey, something is wrong with the numbers. Li batteries are up to about 300 Wh/kg so 100x would be 30 kWh/kg which is 3x higher than any known chemical reaction.


Which, in a round about way, was almost mentioned in the article.


In the article it was only mentioned that the speed of propagation is higher than what would be expected for a chemical reaction.

Nothing is mentioned about the power density.

30 kWh/kg = 108 MJ/kg
heat of combustion for gasoline is about 50 MJ/kg
heat of combustion of hydrogen is about 150 MJ/kg
heat of combustion of carbon is about 30 MJ/kg
http://en.wikiped...mbustion

So it's possible, but it would be interesting what the fuel is being used.

Also, we need to keep in mind that some of the energy comes from the laser or the spark that is used to spark the reaction.