Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently discovered a new material made from carbon nanotubes that can be used for generating electricity.

A SciTechDaily report said the new material can generate electricity by hunting energy from its environment. Electric generation is possible through the use of tiny carbon particles that can produce a current simply through interaction with a surrounding liquid.

The MIT engineers said an organic solvent, the liquid in this case, pulls electrons out of the particles, producing a current that can be used to initiate chemical reactions or to power micro- or nano-scale robots.

According to Michael Strano, Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, this way of generating energy is totally new.

Describing the technology, Strano said it is intriguing as all one has to do is flow a solvent through a bed of carbon particles. 

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Science Times - Generating Electricity: MIT Engineers Discover New Using Tiny Carbon Particles
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Researchers discovered that when part of a nanotube gets coated with a Teflon-like polymer, it generates an asymmetry that’s making it possible for electrons to flow from the tube’s coated and uncoated part, generating electricity.

'Thermopower Waves'

Describing the process in a new study, the MIT researchers showed that they could use this electric current to stimulate a reaction which is called alcohol oxidation, an organic chemical reaction that's essential in the chemical industry.

Strano is the senior author of the study, "Solvent-induced electrochemistry at an electrically asymmetric carbon Janus particle", published in Nature Communications. MIT graduate Albert Tianxiang Liu and former MIT researcher Yuichiro Kunai are the study's lead author.

The research is based on Strano's study of carbon nanotubes. These are hollow tubes made of a lattice of carbon atoms characterized by distinctive electrical properties.

In 2010, Strano declared for the first time that carbon nanotubes can produce "thermopower waves."

When a carbon nanotube is coated with a layer of fuel, the heat's moving pulses, or thermopower waves, travel through the tube, generating an electric current, a process described by the Strano Research Group.

Uncovering a Related Feature of Carbon Nanotubes

That particular work led Strano and his students to find a related feature of carbon nanotubes. They discovered that when part of a nanotube gets coated with a Teflon-like polymer, it generates an asymmetry that makes it possible for electrons to flow from the tube's coated and uncoated part, generating electricity.

To connect this special capability, the study authors developed electricity-generating particles by grinding up carbon nanotubes and forming them into a material similar to a sheet of paper.

One side of every sheet was coated with a Teflon-like polymer. The researchers then cut tiny particles of varying size and shape. For this particular study, they developed particles that were 250 microns by 250 microns in dimension.

When these tiny particles are submerged in an organic solvent like acetonitrile, the solvent adheres to the uncoated surface of the particles and starts to pull electrons out of them.

The solvent takes the electrons away, and the system equilibrates by moving electrons, Strano explained. There is no sophisticated battery chemistry inside, but rather just a particle that, when put into a  solvent, starts to produce an electric field.

The study, according to Jun Yao, assistant professor of electric and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, exhibits how to extract the frequently unnoticed electric energy stored in an electric material for on-site electrochemical synthesis.

The beauty of the research is that it points to a generic approach that can be readily expanded to the use of various materials and applications in different synthetic systems, said Yao who was not part of the research.

Related information about carbon nanotubes is shown on Real Engineering's YouTube video below:

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