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The Division of Nanocarbon Research conducts extensive research on the wonderous properties of carbon

Carbon nanotubes, an allotrope of carbon discovered in the late 20th century, are a new material that continues to attract interest even today. The reason lies in carbon’s properties that allow it to take on many varied structures. Diamonds and graphite are both carbon, as is about half of the human body, excluding water. Professor Yamamoto describes why carbon is so compelling. “I believe the appeal of carbon materials is how malleable their structures are. The fact that carbon can become either hard or flexible is probably why it became the basis of life.” Associate Professor Nakajima adds: “From a structural point of view, the way a single molecule is arranged can completely change a material’s properties. With carbon nanotubes too, their hardness and electrical properties change depending on how their molecules are arranged.” What the Division of Nanocarbon Research is trying to do is engineer nanoscale structures and create the kinds of energy devices we need.

Taking note of the thermoelectric properties of nanocarbon

The primary joint research theme at the Division is to create energy from carbon nanotubes and other nanocarbon structures. The underlying property is that thermal differences cause electric currents to flow in nanocarbon. Professor Yamamoto explains: “It’s possible to take energy that we haven’t utilized before — like body heat, heat from electrical products, and thermal pipes — and convert it into electricity.” How it works is the electricity generated in a certain location powers local sensors, and information picked up by the sensors is sent to a remote computer. What this means is that by creating these kinds of energy devices and placing them in our surroundings, we will be able to collect information from places or structures without a local supply of electric power. The flexibility of nanocarbon is a key part of making this scenario happen. Because it is flexible, it can be attached to cargo or people’s skin or spread in a thin coating. Students from the professors’ laboratories also participate in the joint research projects, which provide excellent educational benefits. Discussions among students working on slightly different research areas can lead to valuable insights. And guidance from professors from other laboratories is a great motivating factor as well.

Power generating devices are changing the way energy is used

The Division is also researching applications for the energy devices. One research project led to the creation of a diagnostic system that measures earthquake damage from within buildings. Professor Yamamoto describes the system. “The first wave of an earthquake stresses and fractures posts and pillars within walls, and the second wave causes the house to collapse. We want to prevent this kind of damage. Even after the power goes out because of the earthquake, our system generates its own electric power from the vibrations and the heat generated from vibrating structures. This allows the system to monitor the situation with sensors and communicate with other systems wirelessly.” This is one example of how ideas and technologies for self-generation of electric power can change how we live. The power generated by carbon nanotubes is not a replacement for thermal generated power or other power sources. Nevertheless, the power they generate is not inconsiderable. Professor Yamamoto says: “I believe this has the potential to become the second industrial revolution. It’s a sustainable energy revolution in which all devices are self-sufficient in terms of generating electricity.” With nanocarbon structures making it possible to generate electricity and transmit information in places previously unimaginable, a world in which these structures create new forms of big data is starting to take shape.

Division of Nanocarbon Research, Research Institute for Science and Technology
Faculty of Science Division I, Department of Physics
Professor Takahiro Yamamoto

■ Main research themes

Professor Yamamoto specializes in theoretical physics, focusing on nanostructure physics of carbon nanotubes, graphene, and atomic layer materials. He studies quantum transport phenomena, thermoelectric effects, and the physical properties of water and other materials in nanospace.

Division of Nanocarbon Research, Research Institute for Science and Technology
Faculty of Advanced Engineering, Department of Applied Physics
Associate Professor Takashi Nakajima

■ Main research themes

Associate Professor Nakajima specializes in functional materials and devices. He studies the physical properties of flexible polymers and nanocarbon materials, with a particular focus on energy conversion phenomena such as piezoelectricity and thermoelectricity.

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