Innovators at NASA’s Glenn Research Center have made several breakthroughs in treating hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) nanomaterials, improving their properties to supplant carbon nanotubes in many applications. These inventors have greatly enhanced the processes of intercalation and exfoliation. Both processes are crucial in creating usable nanomaterials and tailoring them for specific engineered applications. In addition, Glenn’s researchers have devised a means of fabricating exfoliated hBN-alumina ceramic composites, which have great potential as high-thermal-conductivity electrical insulators, as well as a new method to remove impurities from nanomaterials without causing damage to their structures. All of these advances have hBN nanomaterials set to transform applications such as heat sinks, electrical insulators, lightweight piezoelectric polymers for satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, ceramic composites for jet engines, biomedical components, and radiation shielding technology.
Sometimes called white graphite, affordable and plentiful hBN possesses the same kind of layered molecular structure as graphite. In graphite, this structure has allowed next-generation nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes and graphene to be produced. With hBN, however, the process of converting the substance into boron nitride nanotubes (BNNT) has been too difficult to yield commercial quantities. Glenn innovators have created several new methods that could enable greater adoption of this unique nanomaterial.
In the initial stage, the starter reactant is mixed with a selected set of chemicals (a metal chloride, for example) and an activation agent (such as sodium fluoride). This mixture causes hBN to become less resistant to intercalation. The intercalated product can then be exfoliated by heating the material in air, and giving the material a final rinse with a liquid-phase ferric chloride salt to dissolve any embedded impurities without damaging its internal structure. These efficiently exfoliated nanomaterials can be used to form advanced composite materials (e.g., layered with aluminum oxide to form hBN/alumina ceramic composites).
Nanomaterials fabricated from hBN can also take advantage of the material’s unique combination of being an electrical insulator with high thermal conductivity for applications ranging from microelectronics to energy harvesting. Glenn’s innovations have enabled a significantly improved matrix composite material with the potential to make a significant impact on the commercial materials market.