Non-carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes rose to prominence on the back of the buckyball chemistry revolution in the 1990s and are now emerging from prototype applications across academic and industrial laboratories. They have potential in microelectronic circuits, novel sensor devices, special light conductors, and light-emitting nanotubes for display technology.

Indeed, applications as diverse as medical technology, for fibres with ultrahigh tensile strength, in hydrogen storage, for rechargeable batteries, in catalysis, and in nanotechnology are being developed. There are even applications for antifouling coatings for ships.

With this in mind, chemists in Germany who work with inorganic materials have now developed an approach to synthesising tin sulfide nanotubes which could expand the nanotube concept much further still and open up yet more avenues for applications. After all, carbon does not have a monopoly on nanotubes. Early in the development of tubular fullerene structures, inorganic chemists opted to make their nanotubes from metals and non-carbon atoms: tungsten sulfide, nickel chloride, vanadium sulfide, titanium sulfide, and indium sulfide. Many others have been produced.

Wolfgang Tremel and colleagues, Aswani Yella, Martin Panthoefer, Helen Annal Therese, Enrico Mugnaioli, Ute Kolb, of the Johannes Gutenberg-Universitaet in Mainz, Germany, have now developed a new process for the production of tin sulfide nanotubes, which they report in the Wiley journal Angewandte Chemie, the researchers found they could “grow” tin sulfide nanotubes from a drop of metal using a bismuth catalyst.

The team were faced with one of the fundamental problems of synthesising sulfidic nanotubes in that they require a high temperature to force the planar layers of material to bend and fuse into tubular structures. For tin sulfide, the situation is complicated still further by an unstable intermediate that is almost impossible to trap because it decomposes at a lower temperature.

The researchers used a different approach. First, they employed a vapour-liquid-solid (VLS) process, a technique borrowed from semiconductor scientists for producing nanowires as opposed to nanotubes. The process involved mixing bismuth metal powder with minute flakes of tin sulfide and heating this mixture in a tube furnace under a stream of the relatively unreactive noble gas argon. The product of the reaction forms a deposit at the cooler end of the tube.

The team explains that tiny droplets on the nanometre scale are form within the oven. These nanodroplets act as local points of contact for the tin so that the reactants become concentrated within the metal droplet and nanotubes can then grow from these seeds.

“In this process, the metal drop is obtained as a sphere at the end of the tube, and the nanotubes grow out of the sphere like a hair out of a follicle,” explains Tremel. “Catalysis by the metal droplet makes growth possible at low temperatures.”

The team has successfully grown nanotubes comprising multiple layers of tin sulfide with few defects. The nanotubes have diameters of between 30 and 40 nanometres and are 100 to 500 nm in length.

Tin sulfide nanotubes grow from droplets (Credit: Tremel et al/Wiley-VCH)

Angewandte Chemie, in press

Group of Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Tremel

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.