Will carbon nanotubes be water filters of the future? 

(Image courtesy of John-David Rocha and Reginald Rogers)

Enhanced single-walled carbon nanotubes have the potential to filter contaminants from water and clean-up toxic sludge, according to researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology. 

Nanotubes are typically associated with fuel cell research, however, RIT researchers John-David Rocha and Reginald Rogers developed a sustainable approach which employs reusable nanotubes to clean polluted water. Their work was published in the Environmental Science Water: Research and Technology. Ryan Capasse, RIT chemistry alumnus, and Anthony Dichiara, a former RIT post-doctoral researcher in chemical engineering, were co-authors of the paper. 

Rogers, who is an assistant professor of chemical engineering at RIT, said that the nanotubes they are using can be “regenerated.” 

“In the future, when your water filter finally gets saturated, put it in the microwave for about five minutes and the impurities will get evaporated off,” he told the RIT News. 

Carbon nanotubes are essentially storage units that measure about 50,000 times smaller than the witdh of human hair, according to Rocha. A nanotube is formed when a sheet of graphene is rolled up. This procedure also alters its chemical structure and properties 

Carbon nanotubes are storage units measuring about 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Carbon reduced to the nanoscale defies the rules of physics and operates in a world of quantum mechanics in which small materials become mighty. 

“We know carbon as graphite for our pencils, as diamonds, as soot,” Rocha said. “We can transform that soot or graphite into a nanometer-type material known as graphene.” 

A single-walled carbon nanotube is created when a sheet of graphene is rolled up. The physical change alters the material’s chemical structure and determines how it behaves.  

The nanotubes, said Rocha, are transformed into “one of the most heat conductive and electrically conductive materials in the world.” 

The research team isolated high-quality, single-walled carbon nanotubes and arranged them based their semiconductive or metallic properties. The carbon nanotubes were laid out into thin sheets similar to carbon copy paper. The sheets are absorbents and can draw contaminants from water. 

The approach works because the contaminants stick to the sheet but water does not.  

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