NIST Reveals Reliability Problems with Carbon Nanotubes in Electronics

DEXTER JOHNSON Poor old carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Long heralded as the new wonder material, especially in electronics applications where their charge-carrier mobility was able to outperform silicon according to some estimates by a factor of 10, researchers have struggled to…

DEXTER JOHNSON

Poor old carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Long heralded as the new wonder material, especially in electronics applications where their charge-carrier mobility was able to outperform silicon according to some estimates by a factor of 10, researchers have struggled to find a satisfactory proposal for getting them into some kind of ordered array.

While research has continued for the last 20 years to push CNTs beyond a single transistor or has attempted to use their propensity for forming into a rat’s nest as a strength rather than a weakness, they have faced the unexpected problem over the last decade of their toxicological issues.

First the research doesn’t progress quite as hoped, and then environmental, health and safety concerns present an entirely new challenge, but as though those two weren’t enough along comes a new wonder material, graphene.

Like I said, poor old CNTs. So it should come as no surprise in the tale of woe that has followed CNTs that NIST should report  that CNTs have a major reliability issue in electronics.

The research was presented in a paper at the recent IEEE Nano 2011 in Portland, Oregon. From the NIST website:

“…NIST researchers fabricated and tested numerous nanotube interconnects between metal electrodes. NIST test results, described at a conference this week, show that nanotubes can sustain extremely high current densities (tens to hundreds of times larger than that in a typical semiconductor circuit) for several hours but slowly degrade under constant current. Of greater concern, the metal electrodes fail—the edges recede and clump—when currents rise above a certain threshold. The circuits failed in about 40 hours.”

One of the authors of the paper, Mark Strus, a NIST postdoctoral researcher, suggested that while this research may spell the end for CNTs as “the replacement for copper in logic or memory devices”, there still remained the possibility of using the material for “interconnects for flexible electronic displays or photovoltaics.”

That is, of course, when just looking at CNTs’ use as an interconnect. The field of research for CNTs has become so broad over the past 20 years that they are being tested for use in fields as divergent as electrodes in lithium-ion batteries to improvingmedical imaging.

We haven’t yet reached the point of singing CNTs swan song.