A modified electric-arc welding process has been developed for manufacturing high-quality batches of carbon nanotubes at relatively low cost. Unlike in some other processes for making carbon nanotubes, metal catalysts are not used and, consequently, it is not necessary to perform extensive cleaning and purification. Also, unlike some other processes, this process is carried out at atmospheric pressure under a hood instead of in a closed, pressurized chamber; as a result, the present process can be implemented more easily. Although the present welding-based process includes an electric arc, it differs from a prior electric-arc nanotube-production process. The welding equipment used in this process includes an AC/DC welding power source with an integral helium-gas delivery system and circulating water for cooling an assembly that holds one of the welding electrodes (in this case, the anode).

The cathode is a hollow carbon (optionally, graphite) rod having an outside diameter of 2 in.(≈ 5.1 cm)and an inside diameter of 5/8 in.(≈ 1.6 cm). The cathode is partly immersed in a water bath, such that it protrudes about 2 in. (about 5.1 cm) above the surface of the water. The bottom end of the cathode is held underwater by a clamp, to which is connected the grounding cable of the welding power source.

The anode is a carbon rod 1/8 in. ( ≈ 0.3 cm) in diameter. The assembly that holds the anode includes a thumb-knob-driven mechanism for controlling the height of the anode. A small hood is placed over the anode to direct a flow of helium downward from the anode to the cathode during the welding process. A bell-shaped exhaust hood collects the helium and other gases from the process. During the process, as the anode is consumed, the height of the anode is adjusted to maintain an anode-to-cathode gap of 1 mm.

The arc-welding process is continued until the upper end of the anode has been lowered to a specified height above the surface of the water bath. The process causes carbon nanotubes to form in the lowest 2.5 cm of the anode. It also causes a deposit reminiscent of a sandcastle to form on the cathode. The nanotube-containing material is harvested. The cathode and anode can then be cleaned (or the anode is replaced, if necessary) and the process repeated to produce more nanotubes.

Tests have shown that the process results in ≈50-percent yield of carbon nanotubes (mostly of the single-wall type) of various sizes. Whereas the unit cost of purified single-wall carbon nanotubes produced by other process is about $1,000/g in the year 2000, it has been estimated that for the present process, the corresponding cost would be about $10/g.

This work was done by Jeanette M. Benavides and Henning Lidecker of Goddard Space Flight Center.

This invention has been patented by NASA (U.S.Patent No.6,114,995). Inquiries concerning nonexclusive or exclusive license for its commercial development should be addressed to

the Patent Counsel
Goddard Space Flight Center; (301) 286-7351.

Refer to GSC-14601.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2004 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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