June 06, 2007

Towards achieving the potential of carbon nanotubes for electricity

Carbon nanotubes have 1000 times the electrical conductance of copper

From physorg, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new method of compacting carbon nanotubes into dense bundles. These tightly packed bundles are efficient conductors and could one day replace copper as the primary interconnects used on computer chips and even hasten the transition to next-generation 3-D stacked chips.

A carbon nanotube bundle before (left) and after (right) densification. Credit: Rensselaer/Liu

The process boosts the density of these carbon nanotube bundles by five to 25 times. The higher the density, the better they can conduct electricity, Lu said. Several factors, including nanotube height, diameter, and spacing, affect the resulting density, Liu added. How the nanotubes are grown is also an important factor that impacts the resulting shape of the densified bundles.

Despite his initial successes, Lu said the density results obtained are not ideal and carbon nanotubes would have to be further compacted before they can outperform copper as a conductor. A close-up photo, taken using a scanning electron microscope, reveals there are still large empty spaces between densified nanotubes. The research team is exploring various methods to achieve ever-higher density and higher quality of carbon nanotube bundles, he said.

Lu is confident that these densified carbon nanotubes, with their high conductivity, ability to carry high current density, and resistance to electromigration, will be key to the development of 3-D computer chips. Chips used today can only shrink so much smaller, as their flat surface must have enough room to accommodate scores of different components. But the semiconductor industry and academia are looking at ways to layer chip components into a vertical stack, which could dramatically shrink the size of the overall chip.

Densified carbon nanotubes, with their ends trimmed and polished, can be the basic building blocks for interconnects that would link the stacked layers of a 3-D computer chip, Lu said.

“Carbon nanotubes are one of the most promising materials for interconnects in 3-D integration,” he said. Other potential applications of the densified nanotubes are high surface area electrodes for supercapacitors, fuel cell electrodes for hydrogen storage, heat dissipation materials for thermal conductors, and other situations that require high electrical, thermal, or mechanical performance.

The cost of carbon nanotubes would also need to be brought down thousands of times before this could be used for many bulk electrical applications.