Thanks to a little serendipity, Rice University scientists have created a tiny coaxial cable that is about a thousand times smaller than a human hair and has higher capacitance than previously reported microcapacitors. This nanocable was produced with techniques pioneered in the nascent graphene research field and could be used to build next-generation energy-storage systems. It could also find use in wiring up components of lab-on-a-chip processors, but its discovery is owed partly to chance. “We didn’t expect to create this when we started,” said study co-author Jun Lou, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Rice. “At the outset, we were just curious to see what would happen electrically and mechanically if we took small copper wires known as interconnects and covered them with a thin layer of carbon.”
The tiny coaxial cable is remarkably similar in makeup to the ones that carry cable television signals into millions of homes and offices. The heart of the cable is a solid copper wire that is surrounded by a thin sheath of insulating copper oxide. A third layer, another conductor, surrounds that. In the case of TV cables, the third layer is copper again, but in the nanocable it is a thin layer of carbon measuring just a few atoms thick. The coax nanocable is about 100 nanometers, or 100 billionths of a meter, wide.
While the coaxial cable is a mainstay of broadband telecommunications, the three-layer, metal-insulator-metal structure can also be used to build energy-storage devices called capacitors. Unlike batteries, which rely on chemical reactions to both store and supply electricity, capacitors use electrical fields. A capacitor contains two electrical conductors, one negative and the other positive, that are separated by thin layer of insulation. Separating the oppositely charged conductors creates an electrical potential, and that potential increases as the separated charges increase and as the distance between them – occupied by the insulating layer — decreases. The proportion between the charge density and the separating distance is known as capacitance, and it’s the standard measure of efficiency of a capacitor.
Building entire multiple-component devices on single nanowires is a promising strategy for miniaturizing electronic applications. Here we demonstrate a single nanowire capacitor with a coaxial asymmetric Cu-Cu2O-C structure, fabricated using a two-step chemical reaction and vapour deposition method. The capacitance measured from a single nanowire device corresponds to ~140 μF cm−2, exceeding previous reported values for metal–insulator–metal micro-capacitors and is more than one order of magnitude higher than what is predicted by classical electrostatics. Quantum mechanical calculations indicate that this unusually high capacitance may be attributed to a negative quantum capacitance of the dielectric–metal interface, enhanced significantly at the nanoscale.