Like some tantalizing cursed treasure, boron nitride nanotubes have been tempting researchers with their promise of high heat tolerance, which makes them excellent candidates for components in the next generation of microscopic-scale high efficiency electronics. But for years the tiny nanofibers, which are similar to carbon nanotubes, have lead researchers down one blind alley after another.
The fact is that boron nanotubes are much harder to produce than carbon nanotubes. They won’t catch on until that obstacle is overcome – and it seems that a team of researchers at Michigan Technological University has done just that. Working with the same instrumentation used for carbon nanotubes, the team has developed a way to grow virtual “Persian carpets” of boron nitride nanotubes in the lab, paving the way for their commercial use.
How to Grow a Boron Nitride Nanotube Carpet
Boron is an abundant metalloid (a small class of elements that are sort of metals and sort of not). It can be found in the ores ulexite and borax (yes, that borax). According to a Michigan Tech article, the research team headed up by leading nano-scientist Yoke Khin Yap used substrates of magnesium oxide, iron, and nickel to produce the boron nanofibers at around 1,100 degrees Celsius. Yap’s team found that the fibers grew only on the substrate without bleeding off, suggesting that the process could have precision production applications. As an added bonus the boron nanotube sheets proved to be extremely water repellent, which would make them highly durable and resistant to a wide range of acids and alkalies.
Boron Nitride Nanotubes vs. Carbon Nanotubes
Carbon nanotubes currently have ate least one big advantage, which is that they are relatively easy to produce commercially. Researchers are also working on ways to separate different types of carbon nanotubes during the production process, and even defective carbon nanotubes are proving to be useful. However, boron nitride nanotubes could lend themselves to a wider range of nano-applications due to their complex structure, which is more like latticework than the simple chicken-wire structure of carbon nanotubes. This property could enable boron nanotubes to be manipulated into metallic conductors that are more durable and energy efficient than their carbon counterparts. It looks like there’s a place for boron in the molecule-sized computers of the future.
Image: Carpet by keepitsurreal on flickr.com.