Separation of Semiconducting Carbon Nanotubes for Flexible and Stretchable Electronics Using Polymer Removable Method.Acc Chem Res 2017; 50(4):1096-1104AC
Electronics that are soft, conformal, and stretchable are highly desirable for wearable electronics, prosthetics, and robotics. Among the various available electronic materials, single walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and their network have exhibited high mechanical flexibility and stretchability, along with comparable electrical performance to traditional rigid materials, e.g. polysilicon and metal oxides. Unfortunately, SWNTs produced en masse contain a mixture of semiconducting (s-) and metallic (m-) SWNTs, rendering them unsuitable for electronic applications. Moreover, the poor solubility of SWNTs requires the introduction of insulating surfactants to properly disperse them into individual tubes for device fabrication. Compared to other SWNT dispersion and separation methods, e.g., DNA wrapping, density gradient ultracentrifugation, and gel chromatography, polymer wrapping can selectively disperse s-SWNTs with high selectivity (>99.7%), high concentration (>0.1 mg/mL), and high yield (>20%). In addition, this method only requires simple sonication and centrifuge equipment with short processing time down to 1 h. Despite these advantages, the polymer wrapping method still faces two major issues: (i) The purified s-SWNTs usually retain a substantial amount of polymers on their surface even after thorough rinsing. The low conductivity of the residual polymers impedes the charge transport in SWNT networks. (ii) Conjugated polymers used for SWNT wrapping are expensive. Their prices ($100-1000/g) are comparable or even higher than those of SWNTs ($10-300/g). These utilized conjugated polymers represent a large portion of the overall separation cost. In this Account, we summarize recent progresses in polymer design for selective dispersion and separation of SWNTs. We focus particularly on removable and/or recyclable polymers that enable low-cost and scalable separation methods. First, different separation methods are compared to show the advantages of the polymer wrapping methods. In specific, we compare different characterization methods used for purity evaluation. For s-SWNTs with high purity, i.e., >99%, short-channel (smaller than SWNT length) electrical measurement is more reliable than optical methods. Second, possible sorting mechanism and molecular design strategies are discussed. Polymer parameters such as backbone design and side chain engineering affect the polymer-SWNT interactions, leading to different dispersion concentration and selectivity. To address the above-mentioned limiting factors in both polymer contamination and cost issues, we describe two important polymer removal and cycling approaches: (i) changing polymer wrapping conformation to release SWNTs; (ii) depolymerization of conjugated polymer into small molecular units that have less affinity toward SWNTs. These methods allow the removal and recycling of the wrapping polymers, thus providing low-cost and clean s-SWNTs. Third, we discuss various applications of polymer-sorted s-SWNTs, including flexible/stretchable thin-film transistors, thermoelectric devices, and solar cells. In these applications, polymer-sorted s-SWNTs and their networks have exhibited good processability, attractive mechanical properties, and high electrical performance. An increasing number of studies have shown that the removable polymer approaches can completely remove polymer residues in SWNT networks and lead to enhanced charge carrier mobility, higher conductivity, and better heterojunction interface.