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Sawdust and iron nitrate combine in a furnace to produce carbon nanotubes

24 October 2014

Chemists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a new way to make nanostructured carbon using iron nitrate coated sawdust.

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By cooking sawdust with a thin coating of iron at 700°C, the researchers have discovered that they can create carbon with a structure made up of many tiny tubes, the diameter of which are one thousand times smaller than that of an average human hair.

Scientists are looking for new ways of making carbon nanomaterials, as they can be expensive and difficult to manufacture. Carbons with a very specialized structure have many different applications, for example, carbons with very small pores are used in water treatment for removing pollutants and in soil remediation where they can help to retain moisture and nutrients. More advanced carbons are finding use in batteries and may also be used in future hydrogen-powered cars.

There are many different types of carbon nanostructure, the most well known being graphene. Carbon nanotubes have exceptional properties but they are expensive and difficult to make on a large scale. The challenge now is to make carbons with similar properties, but in a much simpler way.

Sawdust is made up of fibres of cellulose and lignin, two of the main building blocks of all plants. When the whole surface of the sawdust is coated in iron nitrate and then cooked, iron carbide nanoparticles are produced. These tiny particles burrow through the structure of the wood as it is decomposing to carbon, leaving behind tubes of very ordered carbon resembling more conventional carbon nanotubes.

"What is really exciting about this is that we are taking waste plant matter and making an advanced material," says Dr Zoe Schnepp, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemistry. "Waste from agriculture and industry is often costly to deal with; for example, in landfill. Industry is becoming increasingly interested in adding value to this waste and creating something useful out of things that otherwise would have been burned or buried.’

The research is published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Green Chemistry.

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