We are living in times when energy demand is growing at such a fast pace that it will not be long before we encounter a huge crisis unless discoveries come to light to avert it. What we need is a new generation of electrical conductors, more efficient, ecologically-friendly and sustainable. A recently discovered form of carbon called carbon nanotubes seems like one of the most viable candidates to accomplish this goal.
Dawid Witold Janas
Carbon nanotubes are a new form of carbon, in which carbon atoms form cylindrical nanostructures. These tiny carbon tubules are assembled uniquely, and hence the material can transport thermal and electrical energy with unprecedented ease. As a consequence, carbon nanotubes can outperform the best classical conductors such as silver, copper and aluminium on the nanoscale. Moreover, they are very strong, light and are relatively easy to make into networks such as wires or tapes from renewable resources.
The project aimed to gain a thorough understanding of their electrical properties to offer new innovative solutions for modern power engineering. Traditional materials are close to operational limits thus we need alternatives which will facilitate further progress of civilisation.
For that to happen, we developed a method of formation of free-standing carbon nanotube sheets of any size, composition and microstructure. Moreover, to study the influence of material structure on the electrical properties, we devised a range of highly precise sorting methods. We developed a method of separating semiconducting carbon nanotubes from metallic ones to provide promising materials for microelectronics and power transmission, respectively. Interestingly, these species showed vivid colours although they are entirely made of carbon, which everyone associates with blackness. Even more, we were also able to differentiate between carbon nanotubes of various types with up to 10-11 m precision in just one step to study how minute changes in the material structure influence the properties.
Besides considerable insight into science gained during the project, the findings laid the foundation for a spectrum of promising applications. First, the electrical properties of carbon nanotube materials produced in-house showed remarkable electrical conductivity. Besides potential applications as light-weight high-performance wires, the produced nanocarbon was also found useful for biomedical engineering. We noticed that our carbon nanotube films had appreciable electrical properties to be considered as neural interfaces, and can be used for recording and processing neural activity or treating neurological disorders. They also facilitated neuron growth and demonstrated biocompatibility. Second, we observed that these films (although free of defects) are surprisingly hydrophilic, which makes them much more compatible with various polymer matrices. As a consequence, they can be transformed into high-performance electrically-conductive composites. Finally, our novel process of carbon nanotube sorting produced a spectrum of nanomaterials of highly defined structure and interesting light emission characteristics. These nanocarbon species, when combined with DNA, can sense diseases such as HIV or ovarian cancer, so we are currently investigating the opportunities that our material offers for medical diagnostics.
We hope that it will not be long before such devices based on carbon nanostructures will surround us to make the world a more sustainable place.
How did you benefit from the POLONEZ fellowship?
The award of the POLONEZ Fellowship was a turning point in my personal and professional life. I decided to come back to Poland for good and establish my scientific presence here. From the first days of the fellowship, I felt that Poland is a very fertile environment for doing science, thus it was an immense pleasure to become a part of it. I considered myself lucky since the project also helped me to establish my team, with whom I can now realise my scientific dreams. I am very grateful to the National Science Centre and the European Commission that enabled me to unleash a stream of creativity, which keeps growing as time goes by. I have to admit that two years on the project were a very steep learning curve, but only now can I see how much I have grown because of it.
Dr hab. Dawid Janas is a graduate of the University of Cambridge with a PhD degree in Materials Science. Thanks to the POLONEZ programme, he came back to Poland in 2016. He is currently an Associate Professor and Head of the Functional Nanomaterials Group at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice. Dr Janas has received several prestigious awards and grants. He also participated in fellowships funded by the Fulbright Commission and the National Agency for Academic Exchange. He has co-authored more than 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals.