Characterization of thermochemical properties of Al nanoparticle and NiO nanowire composites
© Wen et al.; licensee Springer. 2013
Received: 5 March 2013
Accepted: 27 March 2013
Published: 20 April 2013
Skip to main content
© Wen et al.; licensee Springer. 2013
Received: 5 March 2013
Accepted: 27 March 2013
Published: 20 April 2013
Thermochemical properties and microstructures of the composite of Al nanoparticles and NiO nanowires were characterized. The nanowires were synthesized using a hydrothermal method and were mixed with these nanoparticles by sonication. Electron microscopic images of these composites showed dispersed NiO nanowires decorated with Al nanoparticles. Thermal analysis suggests the influence of NiO mass ratio was insignificant with regard to the onset temperature of the observed thermite reaction, although energy release values changed dramatically with varying NiO ratios. Reaction products from the fuel-rich composites were found to include elemental Al and Ni, Al2O3, and AlNi. The production of the AlNi phase, confirmed by an ab initio molecular dynamics simulation, was associated with the formation of some metallic liquid spheres from the thermite reaction.
Metastable intermolecular composites (MICs) are often composed of aluminum nanoparticles (the fuel is usually manufactured with a shell of alumina on each particle) and some oxidizer nanoparticles including CuO [1–12], Fe2O3[13–15], Bi2O3[5, 16], MoO3[5, 17, 18], and WO3[5, 19, 20]. These MICs have drawn much attention recently in developing reliable and high-performance power generation systems due to their nanosized components which allow for the tuning of ignition temperature, reaction propagation rate, and volumetric energy density [12, 17, 21–24]. Applications include gas generators, micro-heaters, micro-thrusters, micro-detonators, and micro-initiators . MICs can be used to fabricate an insert element which is assembled into the conventional solid propellants. This approach helps adjust ignition timing and enhance combustion propagation. However, the challenge remains in identifying a suitable MIC candidate for providing an optimal energetic performance which matches with the properties of the solid propellants.
Generally speaking, better control of the initiation process requires a sufficient heat production rate from the MIC core and a relatively slow pressure increase at the interface between the MIC core and the solid propellant. Gasless thermite reactions are desired for this reason. Gas generation from the thermite reactions is mainly attributed to the formation of vapors of metals (such as Cu, Fe, and Ni), the elemental oxygen (formed from the decomposition of the oxidizer), the gas of metal oxides if the combustion temperature is high enough, and other gaseous reaction products. While the metal vapor forms at a temperature which is above the boiling temperature of the metal, the release of elemental oxygen from the decomposition of the oxidizer component of MICs can be significant as well. Recently, Sullivan and Zachariah characterized the reaction mechanism of a variety of MICs , and they found that, while most oxidizers such as CuO and SnO2 decompose before the thermite reactions occur, which possibly indicates solid-state reactions, the decomposition of Fe2O3 becomes rate-limiting for igniting its thermite reaction. More investigations are needed in order to understand the cause of these different ignition mechanisms. Among the bulk scale thermite reactions, the Al-NiO system was reported to produce less gas . Theoretically, gas (vapor and oxygen) generation from the Al/NiO thermite is about 2% of the gas produced from the Al/CuO thermite and is much lower than other comparable thermite systems. It is therefore worthwhile to investigate the thermochemical properties of the corresponding MIC made of Al and NiO nanostructures. The research objectives of this work were to synthesize and characterize the microstructures of the powder-type Al nanoparticle and NiO nanowire MIC and to investigate its ignition and energy release properties.
In the literature, there are few research papers on the characterization of Al/NiO-based composites. Recently, an Al/NiO MIC was developed on a silicon substrate  for fabricating a two-dimensional geometry. The process started from the thermal oxidation of a Ni film to form a NiO honeycomb. An Al layer was then coated onto this honeycomb by thermal evaporation. The produced Al/NiO MIC exhibited a low ignition temperature and improved the interfacial contact area between Al and NiO. The energy release per mass data was reported, but the method for determining that data was not reported. In that same study, the fabrication method was developed with the presence of a silicon substrate and may not be suitable for other previously mentioned applications. A more detailed investigation on thermochemical behaviors and product microstructures of the powder-type Al/NiO MIC is highly desired.
The reaction properties of a powder MIC depend on the particle size, shape, morphology, and microstructure of its fuel and oxidizer components. A variety of metal oxide nanostructures have been fabricated and implemented in developing high-energy-density MICs, which take the forms of nanospheres , nanowires [2, 30], nanofibers , and nanorods [3, 32]. Usually, the fineness (or particle size) and bulk density of these oxidizers and the degree of their intermixing and interfacial contacting with Al nanoparticles are among the critical factors which influence the ignition mechanism [30, 33]. A recent study showed that the use of CuO nanowires resulted in better mixing between the fuel and oxidizer components of MIC and subsequently facilitated a low-temperature ignition . Their measurements of the pressurization rate from a composite of Al nanoparticles and porous CuO nanowires were about ten times greater than those from the Al and CuO nanoparticle MICs. Other means such as the fabrication of the core-shell nanostructures [2, 34–36] and intermetallic multilayers [22, 37–39] were recently developed to enhance the energetic properties of MICs. Also, the core-shell nanowire- and nanoparticle-based thermites indeed exhibited an improved mixing homogeneity and low activation energy [2, 40]. In this study, NiO nanowires were synthesized, and an effective preparation method to improve intermixing between these NiO nanowires and Al nanoparticles was developed, and then influences of the equivalence ratio of MIC on the ignition process and the energy release value were investigated. The reaction products were examined by electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction in order to identify their chemical compositions and microstructures.
Alumina-passivated Al nanoparticles with a diameter range of 50 to 120 nm were purchased from Sigma-Aldrich Corporation (St. Louis, MO, USA). These nanoparticles were handled in an argon-filled glove box before being mixed with the oxidizer. The thickness of the oxide shell was about 5 to 8 nm which agrees with the reported data on passivated Al nanoparticles [41, 42]. By assuming the averaged nanoparticle diameter of 80 nm, this shell thickness indicates that the content of Al is about 50%. NiO nanowires were synthesized by a hydrothermal method; their average diameters were approximately 20 nm, and their lengths were several microns. Hydrothermal synthesis involved two major steps. First, NiOH nanostructures were formed at 120°C in a weak alkaline solution when Ni(NO3) reacted with a Ni source. NiO nanowires were then produced by annealing NiOH nanostructures at 500°C for 1 h at ambient atmosphere.
Compositions of six Al nanoparticle and NiO nanowire composites
Weight percentage of NiO nanowires (%)
Equivalence ratio ( Φ)a
This measurement revealed the active aluminum content of about 41% to 43%. In this study, the value of 42% was used for determining the equivalence ratio, as shown in Table 1.
The onset temperatures and energy release values were investigated by differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) and using TGA data. These tests were performed in a SDT-Q600 from TA Instruments (New Castle, DE, USA) and compared with the data from a 409 PG/PC NETZSCH (NETZSCH-Gerätebau GmbH, Selb, Germany) simultaneous thermal analysis machine which provides measurements of weight change (TGA) and differential heat flow (DSC) on the same sample. For the SDT-Q600 measurements, the DSC heat flow data were normalized using the instantaneous sample weight at any given temperature. The SDT system was calibrated by following these four steps: (1) TGA weight calibration, (2) differential thermal analysis baseline calibration for the ΔT signal, (3) temperature calibration, and (4) DSC heat flow calibration. In order to remove humidity, these samples were purged in argon for 15 min before thermal scanning. All DSC/TGA experiments were conducted in argon (alpha 2) with a heating rate of 10 K/min, purge flow of 50 ml/min, and temperature range between 35°C and 1,300°C. The obtained mass and heat flow signals were analyzed by the TA analysis software through which the onset temperatures and reaction enthalpies were derived. To determine the compositions of reaction products and their microstructures, the Al/NiO pellets with Φ = 3.5 were heated in argon to 150°C, 450°C, and 800°C on a hot plate. These experiments were performed in a glove box, and the processed pellets were then examined by scanning electron microscopy (SEM), energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDAX), and X-ray diffraction (XRD). For SEM imaging, the samples were 10 nm gold coated. The XRD patterns were captured using a Rigaku SA-HF3 (1.54 Å CuKα) X-ray source (Rigaku Corporation, Tokyo, Japan) equipped with an 800-μm collimator, operating at an excitation of 50-kV voltage, 40-mA current, and 2-kW power.
where, on the right hand side of the equation, the first term represents the electron-nucleus attraction, the second represents the electron–electron repulsion, and the final term, V NN , represents the nucleus-nucleus repulsion. A large-size box consisting of 25 × 15 × 12.815 Å was used, and gamma point calculations were implemented. The double zeta plus polarization basic set was employed with a very high mesh cutoff of 300 Ry. To reduce the computational cost, the norm-conserving pseudopotentials  were used to replace the complicated effects of the motions of the core (i.e., non-valence) electrons of an atom and its nucleus.
The dependence of the onset temperatures on the NiO ratios of the composites is shown in Figure 3. It can be observed that increasing the NiO ratio did not significantly change the onset temperature of the exothermic peak. This indicates a narrow size distribution of Al nanoparticles in these composites and sufficient intermixing between Al nanoparticles and NiO nanowires. All measured onset temperatures are smaller than the melting temperature of bulk Al. In the literature, it was suggested that the activation energy of the thermite reaction depends on the diffusion distance over which these metal ions (aluminum and nickel which become available from the decomposition of NiO) need to travel before initiating the reaction .
In summary, the Al/NiO MIC was prepared using the NiO nanowires synthesized hydrothermally with an average diameter of about 20 nm and a length of a few microns. Six fuel-rich samples with different equivalence ratios from 1.7 to 18 were studied. The sonication process of 20 min helped produce the well-dispersed Al nanoparticles decorated on the NiO nanowires. The DSC/TGA measurements showed the onset temperatures of these Al/NiO MICs of about 460°C to 480°C. The ratio of the NiO nanowires in the MIC was found to have a less effect on the onset temperature. The derived energy release value increased significantly from 600 to 1,000 J/g when the NiO amount was increased from 9% to 50%, which were all smaller than the theoretical reaction heat of the Al and NiO thermite reaction. The chemical compositions and microstructures of these MICs were examined using XRD, SEM, and EDAX, which showed the evidence of the AlNi phase, together with the Al, Ni, and Al2O3, from the fuel-rich Al/NiO MICs. The formation mechanism of the AlNi phase was investigated using a preliminary molecular dynamics simulation which showed a diffusion of Al atoms to the Ni cluster.
This work was supported by NSERC Canada, and the authors thank Dr. Robert Stowe for the helpful discussions.
This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.