08 Feb 2016
Iron-dotted boron nitride nanotubes, made in Yoke Khin Yaps’ lab at Michigan Tech, could make for better wearable tech because of their flexibility and electronic behaviors.
February 5, 2016—
The road to more versatile wearable technology is dotted with iron. Specifically, quantum dots of iron arranged on boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs). The new material is the subject of a studypublished in Scientific Reports in February, led by Yoke Khin Yap, a professor of physics at Michigan Technological University.
Yap says the iron-studded BNNTs are pushing the boundaries of electronics hardware. The transistors modulating electron flow need an upgrade.
“Look beyond semiconductors,” he says, explaining that materials like silicon semiconductors tend to overheat, can only get so small and leak electric current. The key to revamping the fundamental base of transistors is creating a series of stepping-stones.
The nanotubes are the mainframe of this new material. BNNTs are great insulators and terrible at conducting electricity. While at first that seems like an odd choice for electronics, the insulating effect of BNNTs is crucial to prevent current leakage and overheating. Additionally, electron flow will only occur across the metal dots on the BNNTs.
In past research, Yap and his team used gold for quantum dots, placed along a BNNT in a tidy line. With enough energy potential, the electrons are repelled by the insulating BNNT and hopscotch from gold dot to gold dot. This electron movement is called quantum tunneling.
“Imagine this as a river, and there’s no bridge; it’s too big to hop over,” Yap says. “Now, picture having stepping stones across the river—you can cross over, but only when you have enough energy to do so.”
Nanotech for Wearable Electronics
Unlike with semiconductors, there is no classical resistance with quantum tunneling. No resistance means no heat. Plus, these materials are very small; the nanomaterials enable the transistors to shrink as well. An added bonus is that BNNTs are also quite flexible, a boon for wearable electronics.
“Here’s where the challenge comes in,” Yap says, holding up a pen to demonstrate. He gestures along the length of the pen, which mimics a straight BNNT, tapping out a line of quantum dots. “We have an array here to do quantum tunneling, but what if we want to bend the array to be flexible like a piece of wearable electronics?”
Yap sets down the pen and curls up his index finger: “And if I bend the dots, the distance between them changes—in doing so, we change the electronic behavior.”
Changing the behavior means that the quantum tunneling may not work. The solution is to get out of line: Yap and his team arranged a grid of quantum dots around the outside of the BNNT.
“This time we used iron instead of gold,” Yap adds, explaining that gold’s melting temperature was low for the process his team used. “And when we tested the material, the electrons distributed uniformly across the whole surface of the nanotubes.”
That means that instead of having a line of stepping stones, there are many different paths across the river, and an electron will jump to the nearest one. For future use in wearable electronics, the multiplicity of paths ensures electricity is moving from one riverbank to the next, one way or another. Using scanning tunneling microscopy inside a transmission electron microscope (STM-TEM), the team successfully bent the iron dot-coated BNNT while monitoring the electron flows. The electronic behaviors remain the same even when the BNNT was bent all the way up to 75 degrees.
Yap says that this experiment is a proof of concept. While the iron BNNT material shows promise, it’s not a full transistor yet, capable of modulating electron movement. Right now, it’s called a flexible tunneling channel.
“Next, we’ll put the BNNT and iron onto a bendable plastic substrate,” Yap says. “Then we’ll bend this substrate and watch where the electrons go.”
This experimental work is complemented by computer simulations by John Jaszczak, professor of physics, and Paul Bergstrom, professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Which route the electricity takes is hard to track, which will be the main challenge for the next experiment. But one direction is certain, Yap’s research is headed down a path to change the basic level of electronics and make wearable tech more adaptable.
Michigan Technological University (www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.
With that in mind, researchers at Case Western Reserve University have developed flexible wire-shaped microsupercapacitors that can be woven into a jacket, shirt or dress.
By their design or by connecting the capacitors in series or parallel, the devices can be tailored to match the charge storage and delivery needs of electronics donned.
While there’s been progress in development of those electronics–body cameras, smart glasses, sensors that monitor health, activity trackers and more–one challenge remaining is providing less obtrusive and cumbersome power sources.
“The area of clothing is fixed, so to generate the power density needed in a small area, we grew radially-aligned titanium oxide nanotubes on a titanium wire used as the main electrode,” said Liming Dai, the Kent Hale Smith Professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering. “By increasing the surface area of the electrode, you increase the capacitance.”
Dai and Tao Chen, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve, published their research on the microsupercapacitor in the journal Energy Storage Materials this week. The study builds on earlier carbon-based supercapacitors.
A capacitor is cousin to the battery, but offers the advantage of charging and releasing energy much faster.
How it works
In this new supercapacitor, the modified titanium wire is coated with a solid electrolyte made of polyvinyl alcohol and phosphoric acid. The wire is then wrapped with either yarn or a sheet made of aligned carbon nanotubes, which serves as the second electrode. The titanium oxide nanotubes, which are semiconducting, separate the two active portions of the electrodes, preventing a short circuit.
In testing, capacitance–the capability to store charge–increased from 0.57 to 0.9 to 1.04 milliFarads per micrometer as the strands of carbon nanotube yarn were increased from 1 to 2 to 3.
When wrapped with a sheet of carbon nanotubes, which increases the effective area of electrode, the microsupercapactitor stored 1.84 milliFarads per micrometer. Energy density was 0.16 x 10-3 milliwatt-hours per cubic centimeter and power density .01 milliwatt per cubic centimeter.
Whether wrapped with yarn or a sheet, the microsupercapacitor retained at least 80 percent of its capacitance after 1,000 charge-discharge cycles. To match various specific power needs of wearable devices, the wire-shaped capacitors can be connected in series or parallel to raise voltage or current, the researchers say.
When bent up to 180 degrees hundreds of times, the capacitors showed no loss of performance. Those wrapped in sheets showed more mechanical strength.
“They’re very flexible, so they can be integrated into fabric or textile materials,” Dai said. “They can be a wearable, flexible power source for wearable electronics and also for self-powered biosensors or other biomedical devices, particularly for applications inside the body.”
Dai ‘s lab is in the process of weaving the wire-like capacitors into fabric and integrating them with a wearable device.
- Tao Chen, Liming Dai. Flexible and wearable wire-shaped microsupercapacitors based on highly aligned titania and carbon nanotubes. Energy Storage Materials, 2016; 2: 21 DOI: 10.1016/j.ensm.2015.11.004