Year/Course: 2009-2010, Lent 2010
Mentor: Dr Marc Bax

Contacts: Professor Derek Fray, Department of Materials Science
Mentor: Marc Bax

Carbon nanotubes have long attracted the attention of the media due to their unique physical and chemical properties. However, they are generally expensive and slow to manufacture, due to the low yield and complexity of current manufacturing methods. Although carbon nanotubes are used in increasing numbers of applications in a wide range of sectors, they are still mostly used for specific high-value niche areas, and world production of carbon nanotubes is only a few hundred tonnes a year.

Professor Fray and his team have developed an entirely new approach to the manufacture of carbon nanotubes. Using graphite electrodes immersed in a molten salt and electrolysis, they have created a manufacturing process which is 80% efficient. The method is straightforward and significantly faster than conventional approaches and, assuming it can be scaled-up, allows substantial quantities to be produced at a fraction of current costs.

With some simple modifications, the method can also be used to produce carbon nanotubes filled with metals such as tin. These have been shown to significantly increase the capacity of lithium-ion batteries, and are not easily manufacturable using any other process.

The challenge for the i-Team is to identify the applications which would benefit from using carbon nanotubes but are currently restricted due to cost or difficulty of manufacture, as well as recommending the next commercial steps for the researchers to enable their manufacturing process to revolutionise the carbon nanotube marketplace.