Biomimetic-engineering design can replace spaghetti tangle of nanotubes in novel material

Biomimetic Materials Design: The figure illustrates a hierarchical network of carbon nanotubes mimicking a cell's protein network to connect a small heat source (red area) to a larger area that serves as a heat sink. Credit: Graphic / Markus Buehler, MITNanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) devices have the potential to revolutionize the world of sensors: motion, chemical, temperature, etc. But taking electromechanical devices from the micro scale down to the nano requires finding a means to dissipate the heat output of this tiny gadgetry.

In a paper appearing in Nano Letters, Professor Markus Buehler and postdoctoral associate Zhiping Xu of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering say the solution is to build these devices using a thermal material that naturally dissipates heat from the device’s center through a hierarchical branched network of carbon nanotubes. The template for this thermal material’s design is a living cell, specifically, the hierarchical protein networks that allow a cell’s nucleus to communicate with the cell’s outermost regions.

"The structure now used when designing materials with carbon nanotubes resembles spaghetti," said Buehler, who studies protein-based materials at the nano and atomistic scales with the goal of using biomimetic-engineering principles to design human-made materials. "We show that a precise arrangement of carbon nanotubes similar to those found in the cytoskeleton of cells will create a thermal material that effectively dissipates heat, which could prevent a NEMS device from failing or melting."

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