New Nanoribbon Composites Could Make Natural Gas Cars More Efficient

A discovery at Rice University aims to make vehicles that run on compressed natural gas more practical as well as prolonging the shelf life of bottled beer and pop.

The lab of chemist James Tour at Rice University has enhanced a polymer material to make it far more impermeable to pressurised gas and far lighter than the metal in tanks now used to contain the gas. The combination could be a boon for an auto industry under pressure to market consumer cars that use cheaper natural gas. It could also find a market in food and beverage packaging.

Tour and his colleagues at Rice and in Hungary, Slovenia and India reported their results in the online edition of the American Chemistry Society journal ACS Nano.

By adding modified, single-atom-thick graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) to thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), the Rice lab made it 1,000 times harder for gas molecules to escape, Tour said. That’s due to the ribbons’ even dispersion through the material. Because gas molecules cannot penetrate GNRs, they are faced with a “tortuous path” to freedom, he said. The researchers acknowledged that a solid, two-dimensional sheet of graphene might be the perfect barrier to gas, but the production of graphene in such bulk quantities is not yet practical, Tour said.

But graphene nanoribbons are already there. Tour’s breakthrough “unzipping” technique for turning multiwalled carbon nanotubes into GNRs, first revealed in Nature in 2009, has been licensed for industrial production. “These are being produced in bulk, which should also make containers cheaper,” he said.

The researchers led by Rice graduate student Changsheng Xiang produced thin films of the composite material by solution casting GNRs treated with hexadecane and TPU, a block copolymer of polyurethane that combines hard and soft materials. The tiny amount of treated GNRs accounted for no more than 0.5 percent of the composite’s weight. But the overlapping 200- to 300-nanometer-wide ribbons dispersed so well that they were nearly as effective as large-sheet graphene in containing gas molecules. The GNRs’ geometry makes them far better than graphene sheets for processing into composites, Tour said.

They tested GNR/TPU films by putting pressurised nitrogen on one side and a vacuum on the other side. For films with no GNRs, the pressure dropped to zero in about 100 seconds as nitrogen escaped into the vacuum chamber. With GNRs at 0.5 percent, the pressure didn’t budge over 1,000 seconds, and it dropped only slightly over more than 18 hours.

Stress and strain tests also found that the 0.5 percent ratio was optimal for enhancing the polymer’s strength.

The idea is to increase the toughness of the tank and make it impermeable to gas his becomes increasingly important as automakers think about powering cars with natural gas. Metal tanks that can handle natural gas under pressure are often much heavier than the automakers would like.

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