Boron nanoribbons reveal surprising thermal properties in bundles

Size matter… but apparently so does shape – when it comes to conducting heat in very small spaces.

Researchers looking at the thermal conductivity of boron nanoribbons have found that they have unusual heat-transfer properties when compared to other wire/tube-like nanomaterials.

While past experiments have shown that bundles of non-metallic nanostructures are less effective in conducting heat energy than single nanostructures, a new study shows that bundling boron nanoribbons can have the opposite effect and “the thermal conductivity of a bundle of boron nanoribbons can be significantly higher than that of a single free-standing nanoribbon,” according to a report in Nature Nanotechnology, published online on December 11.

The finding is the result of work by a multidisciplinary team headed by Ravi Prasher of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Terry Xu of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Deyu Li of Vanderbilt University (see a complete list of authors below).

Additionally, the researchers found that the unusual heat-transfer properties of boron nanoribbon bundles can be modified, allowing the higher thermal conductivity to be switched on and off through relatively simple physical manipulation. The study concludes that the ribbon structure of the nanomaterials is strongly related to the unusual thermal conductivity of the bundles.

Boron-based nanostructures are a promising class of high temperature thermoelectric materials – substances that can convert waste heat to useful electricity – and thermal conductivity is related to other thermoelectric properties.

Physicists describe the transmission of heat energy in materials like boron as happening through the conduction of “phonons,” quasi-wave-particles that carry energy through excitations of the material’s atoms.

“What we found was largely unexpected,” said Xu. “When two nanoribbons were put together, the thermal conductivity was found to rise significantly rather than staying the same or going down, as has been the case in previous measurements. It has been assumed that phonons were hampered by the interface between the individual nanostructures in similar materials.

“That seems to mean that the phonon can pass effectively through the interface between two boron nanoribbons,” she said. “The question is whether or not this result is due to the weak van der Waals interactions between two nanostructures of ultra-flat geometry.”

The team suspects that the reason for the enhanced thermal conductivity is due in large part to the flat surface structure of the nanoribbons, based on another experimental result that the group discovered by accident.

The nanoribbon bundles exhibiting the unexpectedly higher thermal conductivity were originally prepared in a solution of reagent alcohol and water, which was then allowed to evaporate, leaving some nanoribbons drawn together by van der Waals force (the weak attraction that non reactive and uncharged substances can have for each other).

When other members of the team attempted to duplicate this result, however, the experiment failed and the bundles only had the lower thermal conductivity of single ribbons.

The researchers then noted that a significant difference between the two attempts was that the second experiment had used isopropyl alcohol rather than reagent alcohol in the solution.

Since isopropyl alcohol was known to leave minute residue following evaporation, the researchers suspected that a residue was forming on the ribbons surfaces – a fact that microscopy confirmed – and the residue apparently prevented tight contact between two nanoribbons.

Further tests were made on the lower-conducting bundles, where the ribbon interfaces were washed with reagent alcohol to remove the isopropyl residue, and in this experiment the higher thermal conductivity was achieved.

The results point to the conclusion that boron nanoribbons form better heat-conducting bundles because the ribbons flat surfaces allow for tighter, more complete contact between the individual structures through van der Waals interaction and improved transmission of phonons overall.

“The result implies that achieving a tight van der Waals interface between the ribbons is important in thermal conductivity, something their geometry encourages,” Xu said. “It is possible that this result may have implications for other materials with ribbon-based nanostructures.”

Xu notes that there are potential engineering applications for the finding come not just from the improved thermal conductivity of boron nanoribbon bundles, but also from the reversible nature of the effect.

“This may lead to a simple way to switch the thermal conductivity of the bundle on and off,” she said. “If you want more heat dissipated, but only in certain conditions, you can apply a solution to create a bundle structure with tight bonds and higher thermal conductivity. It could similarly be reversed by adding a residue between the nanoribbons and reducing the thermal conductivity to that of an individual ribbon.”

The finding appears in a letter to Nature Nanotechnology. The authors are Juekuan Yang, Yang Yang, Scott Waltermire and Deyu Li from Vanderbilt University; Xiaoxia Wu, Haitao Zhang, Timothy Gutu, Youfei Jiang, and Terry Xu from UNC Charlotte; Yunfei Chen from Southwest University in Nanjing, China; Alfred Zinn from Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ravi Prasher from the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US Department of Energy. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Lockheed Martin.


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