Apparao Rao and his Clemson team are creating safer carbon nanomaterials to boost high-tech industries, help the environment and improve health care.

With a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, Rao is developing power storage devices that can deliver high energy quickly. Their nanomaterial is a layer of carbon that is thinner than the sheerest fabric and coated with a special polymer to conduct a charge. They will create rolls of it in a process much like a printing press.

Their research also includes designing other nanomaterials to leverage their extraordinary electrical, mechanical, thermal and optical properties that can detect pathogens, deliver drugs to the bloodstream and more.

The potential for real-world relevance excites Rao most. “At the end of the day, knowledge should be useful to humanity.”

While the majority of scientific research has focused on generating renewable energy, the barrier to affordable energy is storage. “That’s why we focused on supercapacitors,” said Rao. “We’re figuring out how to make supercapacitor parts that can be assembled into a storage device.”

By coating carbon nanotubes with a special kind of polymer, they are creating devices that hold and deliver a charge efficiently.

Rao’s team is interdisciplinary — a particular strength at Clemson. “If all of us do physics,” he said, “we can only think in the box.” By involving chemical engineers, mechanical engineers and a broad array of scientists, the team sees a multitude of applications.

Rao delights in surprises. Most of his research is actually a surprise. “We go into the lab expecting one thing, and we get a different outcome,” Rao says. Their team has been quick to capitalize on the changes to the carbon nanomaterial caused by various catalysts, creating “Y” shapes, tubes and coils.

Like a microscopic Slinky toy, the nanosprings are resilient, able to endlessly expand and compress. From this discovery, they synthesized buckypaper, a material that can fold, twist and stretch without breaking. The coils’ ability to absorb impact makes them ideal for impact protection for cell phones, car bumpers or body armor.

The new Clemson Nanomaterials Center, built in partnership with the South Carolina Research Authority, includes 5,000 square feet of laboratory space with chemical vapor deposition systems, an electric arc system and advanced spectroscopes. Located near the University’s Advanced Materials Research Laboratory and the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, the centers are designed for interdisciplinary collaboration.

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