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June 7, 2021

from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT engineers have discovered a new way of generating electricity using tiny carbon particles that can generate electricity simply by interacting with the liquid around them.

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The liquid, an organic solvent, draws electrons from the particles and creates a current that could be used to drive chemical reactions or power micro- or nano-robots, say the researchers.

“This mechanism is new, and this type of energy generation is completely new, “says Michael Strano, Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “This technology is fascinating because all you have to do is run a solvent through a bed of these particles. This allows you to do electrochemistry, but without wires. ”

In a new study describing this phenomenon, the researchers showed that they can use this electrical current to drive a reaction known as alcohol oxidation – one organic -chemical reaction important in the chemical industry.

Strano is the senior author of the paper that appears today in Nature Communications. The main authors of the study are MIT graduate student Albert Tianxiang Liu and former MIT researcher Yuichiro Kunai. Other authors include former PhD student Anton Cottrill, postdocs Amir Kaplan and Hyunah Kim, PhD student Ge Zhang, and recent MIT alumni Rafid Mollah and Yannick Eatmon.

The new discovery arose from Strano’s research on carbon nanotubes – hollow tubes a lattice of carbon atoms with unique electrical properties. In 2010, Strano demonstrated for the first time that carbon nanotubes can generate “thermopower waves”. When a carbon nanotube is coated with a layer of fuel, moving heat pulses or thermal energy waves travel along the tube creating an electrical current.

This work led Strano and his students to uncover a related feature of carbon nanotubes. They found that when part of a nanotube is coated with a Teflon-like polymer, an asymmetry is created that allows electrons to flow from the coated to the uncoated part of the tube, creating an electrical current. These electrons can be extracted by dipping the particles in an electron-hungry solvent.

To use this special ability, the researchers created electricity-generating particles by grinding carbon nanotubes and shaping them into a paper-like material. One side of each sheet was coated with a Teflon-like polymer, and the researchers then cut out small particles that can be any shape or size. For this study, they made particles that were 250 micrometers by 250 micrometers in size.

When these particles are immersed in an organic solvent such as acetonitrile, the solvent adheres to the uncoated surface of the particles and begins to pull electrons out of them.

“The solvent takes away electrons and the system tries to balance itself by moving electrons,” says Strano. “There’s no sophisticated battery chemistry inside. It’s just a particle that you put in solvent and it starts to create an electric field.”

The current version of the particle can generate around 0.7 volts of electricity per particle . In this study, the researchers also showed that they can form arrays of hundreds of particles in a small test tube. This “fixed bed reactor” generates enough energy to power a chemical reaction called alcohol oxidation, which converts an alcohol into an aldehyde or ketone. Usually this reaction is not performed electrochemically as it would require too much external power.

“Because the fixed bed reactor is compact, it offers more application flexibility than a large electrochemical reactor,” says Zhang. “The particles can be made very small and do not need external wires to drive the electrochemical reaction.”

In future work, Strano hopes to be able to use this type of energy generation to build polymers that only use carbon dioxide as a starting material . In a related project, he has already developed polymers that can regenerate themselves from carbon dioxide as a building material in a process powered by solar energy. This work is inspired by carbon fixation, a series of chemical reactions that plants use to build sugar from carbon dioxide using solar energy.

In the longer term, this approach could also be used to power robots on the micro or nano scale. Strano’s laboratory has already started building robots of this size that could one day be used as diagnostic or environmental sensors. The idea of ​​extracting energy from the environment to power these types of robots is appealing, he says.

“That means you don’t have to take the energy storage on board,” he says. “What we like about this mechanism is that you can at least partially take the energy out of the environment.”

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