Asking the Right Questions: The Future of Carbon Nanotubes

Famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that the scientist is not one who gives the right answers, but one who asks the right questions.

If this is the case (and we whole-heartedly believe it is), the future looks bright.

Recently, an inquisitive student was researching Alzheimer’s disease and some possible ways carbon nanotubes (CNTs) could help break up the beta plaques that are thought to contribute to the disease’s effects. The student’s research brought him to the Brewer Science website, and there he did what any good scientist does: asked the right question.

What makes something soluble versus insoluble?

The question was sent to the desk of Brewer Science Engineering Technician, John Bledsoe. John has been at Brewer Science for six years and has worked in applications, R&D, engineering, and customer support. But most of this experience has been focused on the functionalization of CNTs.

CNTs, like diamonds or graphite, are composed of pure carbon. They are arranged in cylindrical tubes that can be grown into long strands of carbon that are just 1/100,000th the width of a human hair, stronger than steel, and more conductive than copper. Simply put: they’re amazing. You can already find them in things like tennis racquets, bike frames, and car bumpers.

There is, however, one major drawback about CNTs, which is where the original question has its roots. Carbon nanotubes are naturally hydrophobic (water-hating) and insoluble in water. And if carbon nanotubes are to have any efficacy inside the body or any other aqueous environment, that’s an issue.

Two possible answers

Making CNTs hydrophilic (water-loving) when they’re naturally hydrophobic is challenging, but not impossible. In John’s response to Andrew, he outlines two ways to do it.

1. Chemical modification

This involves a chemical modification to the CNT itself with the addition of a group of atoms. They can be added via a variety of reactions to create a more polar and water-soluble CNT.

2. Employing a surfactant

This process uses a molecule containing both a hydrophilic and hydrophobic end. In a given solution, hydrophobic end sticks to the CNT and the hydrophilic end goes into the water, allowing the whole thing to be dissolved. This process allows the CNT to be solubilized and dispersed in water quite easily, according to John.

A bright future

John doesn’t want to simply push the limits. He wants to pass the torch. “It’s our duty as scientists…to share what we know and give what we’ve received from our teachers,” he said. Though he’s been approached by several teachers to speak with their students, he’s never received an inquiry like the one he got from the student and he’s glad he could help.

The future impact of CNTs is yet to be realized, but given their capabilities, the possibilities are almost endless. Their role in sensor technology (a critical driver of the IoT) and their possible biotech applications put CNTs at the forefront of the nanotech revolution. It’s easy to see that the future is promising, and at Brewer Science, John’s got a front-row seat.

Check out some things we’re working on over here, including a pure, surfactant-free CNT.

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