MIT’s Carbon Nanotube Portable Power Devices

March 18, 2016 by Tim Youngblood

MIT has developed clean, portable energy using carbon nanotubes, the technology is still in its infancy, but it could change our methods for powering portable devices forever.

MIT has developed clean, portable energy using carbon nanotubes.

Battery technology has come a long way since its inception, but the metals used in them are still difficult to dispose of or recycle. MIT is developing a solution to this problem by burning sugar on carbon nanotube wires. These nanotubes actually generate energy instead of just storing it. Since they're made from carbon and glucose, they're much more environmentally friendly than Lithium or Nickle based batteries. 

This new application for carbon nanotubes is an extension of a discovery made in 2010, also made by MIT. Researchers discovered that carbon nanotubes coated with reactive fuel produced heat while decomposing. When the fuel was ignited at one end of the nanotube, the heat produced a thermal wave that traveled through the nanotubes in a loop. This heat traveled around the tube at speeds 10,000 times faster than a normal chemical reaction (In this case combustion) and had a temperature of 3,000 Kelvins. The most important, yet unexpected discovery was that this heat loop created an electrical current. In the original paper, the nanotubes were said to be 100 times more efficient than lithium ion batteries. In the 5 years since then, MIT says that they've improved on that design to make it more than 10,000 times more efficient.


A model of a carbon nanotube

The technology is still a few years out from being commercially viable, and there is a lot of potential for improvement. Sucrose was used originally because of its availability and chemically stable properties. By using different fuel sources, MIT's team thinks that they can make these nanotubes generate even more power. This will require a lot more testing to ensure safety as they experiment with more volatile compounds for fuel.

“I believe that we are still far from the upper limit that the thermopower wave devices can potentially reach..However, this step makes the technology more attractive for real applications.” -Dr. Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, RMIT University, Australia

These real-world applications are the most exciting part about all of this. These nanotubes have two important properties that separate them from the batteries and generators of today. The first being that these nanotubes are tiny, only a few nanometers thick, and the walls are comprised of individual carbon molecules. This will allow designers to make reliable power supplies for microscopic devices. The second benefit is their long shelf-life. The nanotube power sources can be stored for years before being activated.

The potential applications for carbon nanotube power sources are especially intriguing in the medical and aerospace fields. Their small size and non-toxic degradation make them especially viable for use in medical implants and internal diagnostic sensors. These could be the key to finally making those nano-robots that flow through people's blood in comic books. They could also be a major breakthrough for space exploration. Since these power supplies have to be ignited before they generate power, they're ideal for space probes being sent to the ends of the solar system and beyond. 

The most exciting inventions that will stem from carbon nanotube power sources will most likely be the ones that nobody has thought of yet. That's often how things go in science and engineering, and after all, the tubes' electrical conductivity was an unexpected discovery. 

  • hp1729 March 19, 2016

    Burning sugar??? This is a one-use battery that burns at 3,000 K? ... uses fuel? ... creates a bunch of CO2? Application in nanobots? What are these nabobots going to be made of that tolerates 3,000 K?
    The optimism from this press release smacks of a report you release just before asking for more funding.

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    • tim yb March 19, 2016
      You make some great points, I'm sure MIT would love more funding for the project. I get really excited for alternative power sources, even if they're far-fetched, so that's where all that optimism comes from. MIT didn't say anything about CO2 emissions, but I could see that being an issue. I'm also curious to see what solutions they have to insulate something so small that puts out so much heat. So far MIT has only used them to light LEDs, so most of the proposed applications are theoretical. I was hoping that they would have some more details like how long the fuse takes to burn. Most of the material on the internet about this describes the nanotubes as batteries, but their description sounds more like that of a generator. I'm hoping MIT releases some more information in the near future because their initial announcement brings up more questions than answers. I'd love to get an interview with one of the designers if I can, and we might get some more information about the transition from theoretical to practical applications. If anyone else has questions they'd like to ask the team at MIT, post them in the comments and I'll see if I can ask them for you!
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    picopi March 21, 2016

    It makes a great cigarette lighter. That’s about it.

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