Graphene foam reinforced by carbon nanotubes gets big and tough

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Researchers at Rice University have developed a new “rebar graphene”, which is chunk of conductive graphene foam reinforced by carbon nanotubes, and this particular graphene can support more than 3,000 times its own weight and easily bounce back to its original height.

Scientists at the University tested their new graphene as a highly porous, conductive electrode in lithium ion capacitors and found it to be mechanically and chemically stable. Researchers point out that it can be made in just about any shape and size and as a demo created a screw-shaped piece of the highly conductive foam.

Graphene is one of the strongest materials known and is highly conductive. Multiwalled carbon nanotubes on the other hand are widely used as conductive reinforcements in metals, polymers and carbon matrix composites. The Tour lab had already used nanotubes to reinforce two-dimensional sheets of graphene. Extending the concept to macroscale materials made sense, Tour said.

“We developed graphene foam, but it wasn’t tough enough for the kind of applications we had in mind, so using carbon nanotubes to reinforce it was a natural next step,” Tour said.

The three-dimensional structures were created from a powdered nickel catalyst, surfactant-wrapped multiwall nanotubes and sugar as a carbon source. The materials were mixed and the water evaporated; the resulting pellets were pressed into a steel die and then heated in a chemical vapor deposition furnace, which turned the available carbon into graphene. After further processing to remove remnants of nickel, the result was an all-carbon foam in the shape of the die, in this case a screw. Tour said the method will be easy to scale up.

Electron microscope images of the foam showed partially unzipped outer layers of the nanotubes had bonded to the graphene, which accounted for its strength and resilience. Graphene foam produced without the rebar could support only about 150 times its own weight while retaining the ability to rapidly return to its full height. But rebar graphene irreversibly deformed by about 25 percent when loaded with more than 8,500 times its weight.

The research appears in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

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