Boron nitride nanotubes are primed to become effective building blocks for next-generation composite and polymer materials based on a new discovery at Rice University – and a previous one.
Scientists at known-for-nano Rice have found a way to enhance a unique class of nanotubes using a chemical process pioneered at the university. The Rice lab of chemist Angel Martí took advantage of the Billups-Birch reaction process to enhance boron nitride nanotubes.
The work is described in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Nano Materials (“Chemical Decoration of Boron Nitride Nanotubes Using the Billups-Birch Reaction: Toward Enhanced Thermostable Reinforced Polymer and Ceramic Nanocomposites”).
Boron nitride nanotubes, like their carbon cousins, are rolled sheets of hexagonal arrays. Unlike carbon nanotubes, they’re electrically insulating hybrids made of alternating boron and nitrogen atoms.
Insulating nanotubes that can be functionalized will be a valuable building block for nanoengineering projects, Martí said. “Carbon nanotubes have outstanding properties, but you can only get them in semiconducting or metallic conducting types,” he said. “Boron nitride nanotubes are complementary materials that can fill that gap.”
Until now, these nanotubes have steadfastly resisted functionalization, the “decorating” of structures with chemical additives that allows them to be customized for applications. The very properties that give boron nitride nanotubes strength and stability, especially at high temperatures, also make them hard to modify for their use in the production of advanced materials.
But the Billups-Birch reaction developed by Rice Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Edward Billups, which frees electrons to bind with other atoms, allowed Martí and lead author Carlos de los Reyes to give the electrically inert boron nitride nanotubes a negative charge.
That, in turn, opened them up to functionalization with other small molecules, including aliphatic carbon chains.
“Functionalizing the nanotubes modifies or tunes their properties,” Martí said. “When they’re pristine they are dispersible in water, but once we attach these alkyl chains, they are extremely hydrophobic (water-avoiding). Then, if you put them in very hydrophobic solvents like those with long-chain hydrocarbons, they are more dispersible than their pristine form.