The glamorous applications for carbon nanotube in electronics focus on the use of individual nanotubes for nanoscale electronics – for example, this single nanotube integrated circuit reported by IBM a couple of years ago. But more immediate applications may come from using thin layers of nanotubes on flexible substrates as conductors or semiconductors – these could be used for thin film transistor arrays in applications like electronic paper. A couple of recent papers report progress in this direction.
From the group of John Rogers, at the University of Illinois, comes a Nature paper reporting integrated circuits on flexible substrates based on nanotubes. The paper (Editors summary in Nature, subscription required for full article) , whose first author is Qing Cao, describes the manufacture of an array of 100 transistors on a 50 µm plastic substrate. The transistors aren’t that small – their dimensions are in the micron range – so this is the sort of electronics that would be used to drive a display rather than as CPU or memory. But the performance of the transistors looks like it could be competitive with rival technologies for flexible displays, such as semiconducting polymers.
The difficulty with using carbon nanotubes for electronics this way is that the usual syntheses produce a mixture of different types of nanotubes, some conducting and some semiconducting. Since about a third of the nanotubes have metallic conductivity, a simple mat of nanotubes won’t behave like a semiconductor, because the metallic nanotubes will provide a short-circuit. Rogers’s group get this round this problem in an effective, if not terribly elegant, way. They cut the film with grooves, and for an appropriate combination of groove width and nanotube length they reduce the probability of finding a continuous metallic path between the electrodes to a very low level.
Another paper, published earlier this month in Science, offers what is potentially a much neater solution to this problem. The paper, “Self-Sorted, Aligned Nanotube Networks for Thin-Film Transistors” (abstract, subscription required for full article), has as its first author Melburne LeMieux, a postdoc in the group of Zhenan Bao at Stanford. They make their nanotube networks by spin-coating from solution. Spin-coating is a simple and very widely used technique for making thin films, which involves depositing a solution on a substrate spinning at a few thousand revolutions per minute. Most of the solution is flung off by the spinning disk, leaving a very thin uniform film, from which the solvent evaporates to leave the network of nanotubes. This simple procedure produces two very useful side-effects. Firstly, the flow in the solvent film has the effect of aligning the nanotubes, with obvious potential benefits for their electronic properties. Even more strikingly, the spin-coating process seems to provide an easy solution to the problem of sorting the metallic and semiconducting nanotubes. It seems that one can prepare the surface so that it is selectively sticky for one or other types of nanotubes; a surface presenting a monolayer of phenyl groups preferentially attracts the metallic nanotubes, while an amine coated surface yields nanotube networks with very good semiconducting behaviour, from which high performance transistors can be made.