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Process improves usefulness of carbon nanotubes for battery applications

By Scott Jenkins |

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have been touted as game-changing nanomaterials in a wide variety of areas, but their actual commercial success has been less than expected thus far. To a large extent, the difficulty has centered around the tendency of CNTs to agglomerate and entangle, which limits their ability to provide the expected mechanical and electrical properties.

Now, a process developed by Black Diamond Structures (BDS; Austin, Tex.; www.blackdiamond-structures.com) offers a way to disperse the clumped CNTs so their favorable properties can be exploited in real-world applications. The process involves both chemical and physical manipulation of commercially available CNTs, such that the agglomerations separate and remain dispersed enough to be used in electrodes for lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries.

carbon nanotubes

Black Diamond Structures

“Under an SEM [scanning electron microscope], CNTs appear clumped, like a cotton ball,” says BDS CEO John Hacskaylo. “We developed a commercial-scale process that breaks apart the CNT clumps into individual tubes [see image], so they can exhibit their useful properties in real products.”

Beginning with commercial CNTs, the BDS process involves a proprietary method to chemically functionalize the surface of the CNTs, and specially designed devices that mechanically separate the CNT agglomerates. The resulting products, trademarked as Molecular Rebar, are aqueous dispersions of separated CNTs that can distribute evenly into battery electrode materials.

When incorporated into electrodes, Molecular Rebar products have advantages for both lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries in both motor-vehicle and stationary-energy-storage applications. For lead-acid batteries, CNT-infused anodes help lengthen battery lifetime, increase charging speed and reduce the amount of lead required (lowering cost). For new-generation Li-ion batteries, adding Molecular Rebar in the higher-performing silicon anodes strengthens the material so it can withstand the swelling and shrinkage that occurs with the Si anodes.

BDS was formed through a joint venture between Molecular Rebar Design LLC (Austin, Tex.; www.molecularrebar.com) and SABIC (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; www.sabic.com). SABIC recently announced that it has taken the majority stake in BDS for SABIC’s specialty business to further strengthen its offerings for mobility electrification.

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