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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Spring 2006
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At Rensselaer

NANOTECHNOLOGY

Researchers Develop Flexible, Conducting “Nano Skins”

A flexible, conducting “nano skin” with organized arrays of nanotubes embedded throughout.

A flexible, conducting “nano skin” with organized arrays of nanotubes embedded throughout.

A team of researchers has developed a new process to make “nano skins” for a variety of applications, from electronic paper to sensors for detecting chemical and biological agents. The materials combine the strength and conductivity of carbon nanotubes with the flexibility of traditional polymers.

“Researchers have long been interested in making composites of nanotubes and polymers, but it can be difficult to engineer the interfaces between the two materials,” says Pulickel Ajayan, the Henry Burlage Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer. “We have found a way to get arrays of nanotubes into a soft polymer matrix without disturbing the shape, size, or alignment of the nanotubes.”

Typically, nanotube arrays don’t maintain their shape when transferred because they are held together by weak forces. The team has developed a new procedure that allows them to grow an array of nanotubes on a separate platform and then fill the array with a soft polymer. When the polymer hardens, it is essentially peeled back from the platform, leaving a flexible skin with organized arrays of nanotubes embedded throughout.

The skins can be bent, flexed, and rolled up, all while maintaining their ability to conduct electricity, which makes them ideal materials for electronic paper and other flexible electronics, according to Ajayan.

“The general concept — growing nanotubes on a stiff platform in various organizations, and then transferring them to a flexible platform without losing this organization — could have many other applications, all the way from adhesive structures and Velcro-like materials to nanotube interconnects for electronics,” says Swastik Kar, a postdoctoral researcher in materials science and engineering at Rensselaer and lead author of the paper.

The researchers also envision using the process to build miniature pressure sensors and gas detectors. “There are a lot of possibilities if you have an easy way to transfer the nanotubes to any platform, and that is what we have developed,” Ajayan says.

Several other Rensselaer researchers also collaborated on the project, along with colleagues from New Mexico State University.

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