The low temperature catalytic growth of multiwall carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) rests on the continuous nucleation and growth of graphene layers at the surface of crystalline catalyst particles. Here, we study the atomic mechanisms at work in this phenomenon, by observing the growth of such layers in situ in the transmission electron microscope, in the case of iron-based catalysts. Graphene layers, parallel to the catalyst surface, appear by a mechanism of step flow, where the atomic layers of catalyst are “replaced” by graphene planes. Quite remarkably, catalyst facets systematically develop while this mechanism is at work. We discuss the origin of faceting in terms of equilibrium particle shape and graphene layer nucleation. Step bunching due to impeded step migration, in certain growth conditions, yields characteristic catalyst nail-head shapes. Mastering the mechanisms of faceting and step bunching could open up the way to tailoring the structure of low temperature-grown MWCNTs, e.g. with highly parallel carbon walls and, ultimately, with controlled structure and chirality.
The study of graphene layers’ growth at the surface of crystalline catalyst particles. The researchers observed the development of catalyst facets as it occurred simultaneously with graphene planes’ replacement of atomic catalyst layers.