MIT engineers have discovered yet another use for carbon nanotubes: scavenging energy from the environment to generate a current that could drive chemical reactions or power tiny robots.
Chemical engineer Michael Strano and his students created electricity-generating particles by grinding up carbon nanotubes, forming them into a sheet coated on one side with a Teflon-like polymer, and cutting out pieces 250 by 250 microns in size.
When these particles are submerged in an organic solvent, the solvent adheres to the uncoated surface and begins pulling electrons out of them, forming an electrical current. Each particle can generate about 0.7 volts, and hundreds of them packed together yield enough energy to power alcohol oxidation, an organic reaction important in the chemical industry. Strano’s lab is also building micro- and nano-scale robots that could someday use this energy to serve as diagnostic or environmental sensors.
“This mechanism is new, and this way of generating energy is completely new,” Strano says. “This technology is intriguing because all you have to do is flow a solvent through a bed of these particles. This allows you to do electrochemistry, but with no wires.”