Open Journal of Com p osi t e M at e ri al s, 2011, 1, 1-9
doi:10.4236/ojcm.2011.11001 Published Online October 2011 (
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJCM
Cu/CNF Nanocomposite Processed by Novel Salt
Decomposition Method
Cécile Vincent1, Jean-Marc Heintz1, Jean-Francois Silvain1, Namas Chandra2
1ICMCB, CNRS, Pessac, France
2College of Engineering, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, United Stat es
Received August 5, 2011; revised September 10, 2011; accepted September 20, 2011
Thermal dissipation in power electronic devices can be improved through the elaboration of a new genera-
tion of layered heat sinks based on copper (Cu)-carbon nanofibers (CNF) composites. Though the high theo-
retical thermal conductivity of CNF (1200 W/mK) no Cu-CNF composites with enhanced thermal properties
are available. Indeed conventional compositing processes do not allow neither a good dispersion of the
nano-reinforcements nor a control of the nanofiber-matrix interface which is not suitable for efficient heat
transfers. In this paper, a process based on CNF coating with Cu followed by uniaxial hot pressing in de-
scribed. It is shown that under proper experimental conditions the salt decomposition coating method is ca-
pable of achieving the desired high thermal conductivity values (>400 W/mK) thanks to a good dispersion of
the CNF, low porosity content and the control of Cu-CNF interfaces.
Keywords: Carbon Nanofibers, Metal Matrix Composite, Powder Processing, Thermal Properties
1. Introduction
Performance of new power electronic devices is cur-
rently limited by packaging of modules. Indeed elec-
tronic properties of multichip modules can not be fully
exploited due to problems of heat dissipation. More and
more powerful silicon or silicon carbide chips produce
more and more heat that leads to early failure of the dif-
ferent components. There is thus, a strong need for the
development of novel heat dissipation materials. They
must combine high thermal conductivity and a coeffi-
cient of thermal expansion (CTE) compatible with that of
the ceramic materials (alumina, silicon nitride or alumi-
num nitride) on which they are brazed. Knowing the
CTE of those ceramics are lower than 8 ppm/K, the use
of copper as heat sink with a CTE of 17 ppm/K is not
acceptable from thermal stresses point of view. The CTE
of copper can be reproductively reduced (in a plane) to
10 ppm/K by adding carbon fibers (CF) having an axial
CTE close to zero. This decrease in heat sink CTE allows
a diminution of thermomechanical stresses in power
modules and associated phenomena like delamination at
solder joints, failure of ceramic that improves the reli-
ability of these modules.
Further, the high axial thermal conductivity of carbon
fibers (>400 W/mK) makes potentially carbon-fibers
reinforced copper an ideal candidate for the realization of
heat sink materials [1,2]. In fact these composites are
processed by powder metallurgy (PM), consisting in a
simple mechanical mixing of CF and copper powder, that
does not allow the formation of chemical interfaces be-
tween carbon fibers and copper [3]. Consequently, heat
transfers between CF and the matrix are not effective and
thermal properties of Cu-CF composites are not as high
as expected (320 W/mK in plane for Cu + 40 vol.% CF
with kCF = 540 W/mK) that is not suitable for thermal
management of power electronic modules.
A clever design of the heat sink should be a multilayer
material. A bulk part, at the bottom, exhibiting a low
CTE to limit thermomechanical strains and an upper thin
layer in contact with the heat source, i. e. the chip, with a
high thermal conductivity to spread the heat effectively
in a plane is potentially a good design to enhance life-
time of modules.
The goal of this work is to process copper-carbon
nanofibers composite materials with enhanced thermal
conductivity compared to copper without significantly
decreasing thermal expansion values, which will be
achieved by the bulk layer made of Cu-CF material. No
problem of interfaces between the different layers can
appear as they are all based on copper matrix. Vapour
grown carbon nanofibers (VGCNF or CNF) with a theo-
retical thermal conductivity close to 1200 W/mK (axial)
are an ideal reinforcement based on cost and perform-
ance [4]. Due to the high aspect ratio of CNF (around
100), the calculated percolation threshold is estimated to
be smaller than 10 % in volume fraction.
As a consequence the composite to be processed in
this study will contain a volume fraction of CNF lower
than 10 % to avoid problems of dispersion and homoge-
neity and CNF-CNF contacts. The increase of copper
conductivity will be limited by the low volume fraction
of CNF added in the matrix and will not exceed 440
W/mK according to the rule of mixture. This value can
be achieved if the reinforcement is fully dispersed in the
matrix, if the porosity content is close to zero and if
CNF-Cu contacts are heat conductive.
Amongst many possible processing methods, powder
metallurgy easily stands out since the process overcomes
the difficulty induced by the nonwetting nature of carbon
in liquid copper [5-7]. The most important problem in
the processing relates to obtaining the desired dispersion
of the carbon nanofibers within the metal matrix.
Two parameters limit the success of this objective:
The carbon nanofibers are chemically inert and do not
react with copper.
During the densification process, homogeneous distri-
bution of CNF does not occur due to (1) small size of
the nanofibers compared to the grain size of the copper
matrix, and (2) do not allow a deagglomeration of car-
bon nanofibers with a simple mechanical mixing.
In a previous work [8] it was shown that a new method
based on salt decomposition was efficient to reach ther-
mal conductivities superior to that of copper compared to
classical methods like powder metallurgy or electroless
plating. In this paper, the salt decomposition method, as
known as molecular level mixing [9] is detailed. A
chemical treatment has been first investigated to create
nucleation sites on the CNF surface and enhance ma-
trix-reinforcement link. A metallic salt was selected
among two (copper chloride and nitrate) and different
experimental conditions (solvent, mixing, heat treatments)
were optimized.
In section 3, we present the microstructural character-
istics and the thermal properties of samples at different
stages of the method and correlate the processing condi-
tions to the properties of the materials.
2. Experimental
2.1. Coating Process
The aim of this process is to coat individualized CNF with
homogeneous copper thin film of desired thickness. Vapor
Grown Carbon NanoFibers (Figure 1) that will be named
CNF from Showa Denko KK were used (Table 1).
The chemical coating process consists in four steps:
1) The dispersion of CNF in a solvent using a high en-
ergetic ultrasonic treatment. Three solvent compositions
have been tested (Pure ethanol, ethanol + water (1:1) and
ethanol + water (1:3)). The boiling point of ethanol is
79˚C, and that of water is 100˚C at atmospheric pressure.
2) The choice of copper salt and its concentration.
Two salts have been tested (copper chloride and copper
nitrate). For a given concentration (100 g/L), each salt
has been dissolved in the three solvents. For the best
“solvent-salt” couple the effect of the salt concentration
on the morphology of the coating has been analyzed after
the evaporation of the solvent (80˚C in air) and adapted
annealing treatment. The two different annealing treat-
ments are analyzed in step 3.
3) After the solvent evaporation step two main an-
nealing treatments have been performed. In the first one
the dry copper nitrate-CNF powder is treated at 400˚C in
air during 2 hours and then reduced at 400˚C during 1
hour under reducing atmosphere (Ar/5%H2). In the sec-
ond one dry copper nitrate-CNF powder is directly
treated at 400˚C during 2 hours under reducing atmos-
phere (Ar/5%H2). The finally treated Cu/CNF powder is
observed by SEM in order to determine the morphology
(thickness, grain size, homogeneity) of the Cu coating
and the distribution of the CNF.
4) Finally the treated Cu/CNF powder is densified at
650˚C during 20 min, a 50 MPa uniaxial pressure under
reducing atmosphere (Ar/5%H2). TEM analyses have
been performed on densified Cu/CNF composite in order
to reveal the distribution and the Cu/CNF interfacial
Table 1. Basic physical properties of carbon nanofibers.
Size DensityThermal
conductivity CTE
150 nm in
diameter > 10 µm
1200 W/mK
(axial)20 W/mK
0 ppm/K (axial)
12 ppm/K
Figure 1. (a) SE micrograph of CNF; (b) TEM image of
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2.2. Characterizations
Microstructure: Microstructures of the composites pow-
ders were characterized in scanning electron microscopy
with a Jeol 840. No metallization treatment is required as
the samples are electrically conductive. Densified sam-
ples were observed in transmission electron microscopy
with a Jeol 200CX.
Themal characterizations: The thermal conductivity
was measured using flash laser apparatus [10,11],
Netzsch LFA 457. The specimens are cylindrical (6 mm
of diameter and 3 mm of height) due to the sample ge-
ometry required by the laser flash apparatus. There-
forek can be measured only in the direction parallel to
the densification axis. It should be noted that the ther-
mal properties are likely to be isotropic due to the ran-
dom orientation of the anistropic CNF (k = 1200 W/mK
in parallel axis and k = 20 W/mK in perpendicular axis).
Porosity measurements: The volume fraction of poros-
ity was determined by two methods.
In the first method, the apparent density ρ1 of the
sample is (1) ρ1 =m/V, where m is the mass and V is the
volume. In the second method, the relative density of the
sample is calculated according to Archimedes principle.
If (m1) is the weight in air and (m2) is the weight in wa-
ter, the density ρ2 is given by
(2) ρ2 = ρH2O·m1/(m1-m2)
In this case, m2 is measured instantaneously (as soon
as the sample is lowered into the water) to assure that
both open and closed porosity volume fractions are ac-
counted for. The density of water is considered to be
equal to 1 at room temperature.
Porosity volume fraction can then be calculated using
(3) vol.% = (1 – ρexp)/ρth × 100
ρth is the density of the composite calculated according
to the rule of mixture and based on the densities of cop-
per 8.96 g/cm3 and CNF 2.2 g/cm3. ρexp is the average of
ρ1 and ρ2. This method is typically used to average the
lower density (overestimation of the volume of the sam-
ple) in the first case, and higher density (overestimation
of m2) in the second case.
Densification of the Cu/CNF composite: As already
stated the densification process involving uniaxial hot
pressing was used. The samples were pressed at 650˚C
under 50 MPa for 20 minutes with a heating rate in the
range of 25˚C/min. The temperature was measured by
inserting a thermocouple inside the graphite mold, and
the measurement was used to control the temperature
within a range of ±10˚C. Sintering was performed under
reducing atmosphere (Ar/5%H2) in order to prevent oxi-
dation of the nano copper composite powder during the
heating cycle.
3. Results and Discussions
3.1. Effect of the Solvent
Table 2 shows the evolution of the copper grain size
(after the evaporation of the solvent and the two steps of
heat treatment) for the copper nitrate salt. It is clear from
this table that for pure ethanol solvent the smallest Cu
grain size associated with homogeneously CNF coating
is observed. Therefore, in order to minimize the number
of experiments, this solvent is used for all further ex-
periments whatever the copper salt used.
It has to be mentioned that for the other tested salt
(copper chloride) the quasi absence of coating onto CNF
do not allow us to determine any grain size variation
with the solvents [11].
3.2. Ultrasonication of CNF in Ethanol
It has been shown by XPS analysis that after a sonication
treatment in ethanol, reactive sites in the form of oxy-
genated groups (C=O, COOH) are attached on the CNF
surface [12] and furthermore act as nucleation site for
metal growth. The time of sonication was adjusted so
that a stable suspension of CNF is obtained without
damaging the desired CNF characteristic (length …).
The XPS quantitative analysis of the oxygen content
showed that a time of sonication equal to one hour was
enough to create O groups on the CNF without damaging
their structure. Therefore, the duration of one hour was
chosen for the elaboration of the CNF suspension and the
CNF surface functionalization.
3.3. Salt Choice and Concentration
Effect of the nature of the salt: The two salts (copper
nitrate: Cu(NO3)2, 3H2O and Chloride: CuCl2) have been
chosen due to their good solubility properties in the three
tested solvents. Once the CNF are dispersed in ethanol
(the solvent chosen see section 3.1), for the 100 g/L salt
concentration, the two metallic salts are added to the two
suspensions and mechanically stirred at 80˚C until com-
plete evaporation of the solvent. Figures 2(a) and (b)
Table 2. Cu grains size in Cu/CNF composite in function of the chemical nature of solvent.
Size Density Thermal conductivity CTE
150 nm in diameter
> 10 µm length 2.2 1200 W/mK (axial)
20 W/mK (transverse)
0 ppm/K (axial)
12 ppm/K (transverse)
show SE micrographs of the CNF coated with the copper
nitrate and copper chloride salts respectively. At that
stage, for the copper nitrate salt (Figure 2(a)), CNF
cannot be observed anymore after the final annealing
process. It is not a proof that the CNF are individually
coated but just that all the CNF are embedded inside the
copper matrix leading to formation of nanocomposite
It can be observed in Figure 2(b) that the CNF are not
coated with copper when CuCl2 is used and that copper
grains of close or less than 1 micron in diameter are ob-
served on the side of the CNF. Therefore this salt and
process can be used to uniformely disperse micronic or
submicronic copper grain with CNF but cannot be used
to uniformely coat CNF with copper. Based on this re-
sults further experiments will only be conducted with the
copper nitrate salt.
Figure 3 shows on a simplified scheme the evolution
of the Cu network on CNF during the deposition and
calcinations steps. First, the sonication of the CNF brings
oxygen, mainly in the form of OH groups, at their sur-
face. Then after evaporation of the solvent, copper spe-
cies in the form of -Cu-O-NOx or -Cu-Cl2 are chemically
linked to the oxygenated groups. The step of calcination
with departure of N and Cl based groups leads to the
formation of a O-Cu-O network in the case of nitrate and
does not allow the formation of this type of network
when copper chloride is used. In fact, Cl is monovalent
and is linked only with copper. The rupture of Cu-Cl
bonds with temperature does not lead to the formation of
a O-Cu-O network due to the absence of oxygenated
Figure 2. SEM micrograph of composite powder after an-
nealing treatments (a) From Cu(NO3)2·3H2O; (b) From
groups on Cl atoms. Furthermore, the thermal decompo-
sition of CuCl2 on the CNF occurs mainly in the form of
a sublimation of the chloride with breaking of
(CNF-)O-Cu bonds. After calcination step the CNF re-
main uncovered by copper when CuCl2 salt is used.
In the case of copper nitrate, the phenomenon of poly
condensation occurs, as in sol-gel process for example.
The departure of H2O and NOx groups is immediately
followed by a rearrangement of the chemical bonds and a
tridimensionnal O-Cu-O-Cu network is formed, leading
to a thick coating of the CNF. The oxygen is finally
eliminated of the coating during the step of reduction.
Effect of the concentration of the Cu nitrate salt: Four
salt concentrations of Cu nitrate in pure ethanol have
been tested: 50, 100, 133 and 200 g/L. Figure 4 shows
the evolution of the CNF/Cu nanocomposite microstruc-
ture with the salt concentration. It has to be noticed first
that for the highest concentration (200 g/L) a gel is
formed and cannot be properly dried. Therefore the
evaporation step is difficult to achieve and leads to a
viscous solid which cannot be observed by SEM. After
the evaporation of the ethanol solvant, a blue solid char-
acteristic to Cu nitrate can be obtained for the three other
salt concentrations (50, 100 and 133 g/L). For the same
copper nitrate concentration, it can be observed in Fig-
ure 4 that when the salt concentration decreases the
copper grain size decreases (Table 3). Until a gel is not
formed, metallic copper grain size can be easily moni-
tored with the salt concentration going from submicronic
grain to micronic one. For thermal application, higher
density of grain boundaries in metal matrix composite
materials is usually linked with a degradation of compos-
ite thermal properties. Therefore for identical coating
behaviour larger grain size has to be chosen (100 and
133 g/L). For an economical point of view, we chose the
133 g/L concentration of Cu nitrate in ethanol solvent for
all the coating process.
3.4. Annealing Treatment
Annealing treatments of the mixture of CNF inside
ethanol solvent using copper nitrate salt with concentra-
tion of 133 g/L have been performed in order to trans-
form Cu-O-N species into pure copper. As mentioned
previously, two types of treatments have been performed.
The first one (a) is a two steps process (calcination under
air followed by a calcination under Ar/H2) and the sec-
ond one (b) is a one step process (calcination under
Ar/H2). The effect of the process on the nucleation and
growth and on the morphology of the coating is evalu-
ated below.
(a): Calcination of Cu2(OH)3(NO3) at 400˚C (air) +
heat treatment at 400˚C (Ar/H2) Chemical reactions oc-
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Figure 3. Mechanism of formation and evolution of the C-Cu network along the different steps of the process for the two salts:
Cu(NO3)2·3H2O and CuCl2.
Figure 4. SE micrographs of Cu/CNF composite for different concentrations of Cu nitrate in ethanol (a) 50 g/L; (b) 100 g/L;
(c) 133 g/L.
(a) (b)
10 µm
10 µm 10 µm
Table 3. Average Cu grain size after evaporation of the
solvent and heat treatment for Cu nitrate in ethanol.
Salt concentration (g/L) Cu mean grain size (µm)
50 1
100 6
133 6
200 /
curring during the heating step can be summed up as
Cu2(OH)3(NO 3)(s) 2Cu(OH)2(s) + NO2(g) CuO
+ H2O(g)
At T = 423K Cu(OH)2(s) CuO(s) + H2O (g)
Or Cu2(OH)3(NO3)(s) 2CuO + HNO3 + H2O as
studied by Morozov et al. [13].
Figure 5 shows a thermogravimetric analysis in air of
Cu2 (OH)3(NO3)/CNF powders between room tempera-
ture and 500˚C. It is clearly shown that the thermal de-
composition of the Cu2(OH)3(NO3) compound is achieved
at 400˚C. Mass spectrometer analyses were combined to
the TGA analysis but the simultaneous decomposition of
many species did not give significant results. The X-Ray
Diffraction pattern (Figure 6) also shows that, after the
heat treatment at 400˚C in air, the Cu2(OH)3(NO3) is
completely transformed in a CuO phase. During this
heating step there is no preferential oriented grain growth.
Further heat treatment at 400˚C under Ar/H2 atmosphere
leads to the reduction of the copper oxide to metallic
copper (Figure 6). Average grain size of the Cu particles
is observed to be around 1 µm.
(b): Calcination of Cu2(OH)3(NO 3) at 400˚C (Ar/H2)
This step (b) directly follows the solvent evaporation
step. In this step, metallic copper is directly formed from
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0100 200300 400500
T (°C)
dM/M (%)
Figure 5. TGA of thermal decomposition of Cu nitrate deposited on CNF under air .
15 25 35 4555 65 75
A ngle (°)
- Cu
+ CuO
¤ Cu2(OH)3(NO3)
After uniaxial densification
HT 500˚C
HT 500˚C
¤ ¤ ¤
After evaporation step
Figure 6. X-Ray diffraction patterns of the Cu/CNF composite after different elaboration steps.
Cu2(OH)3(NO 3) without CuO in the intermediate stage,
as in step (a). SEM micrograph (Figure 7(c)) after direct
heat treatment at 400˚C under Ar/H2 shows that the CNF
are not uniformly covered with Cu. Cu grains in near-
spherical shape are found to be attached to CNF. Such a
phenomenon was also observed by Kim et al. [14] for
similar systems, and may be attributed to the melting of
the nanometric grains (10 to 500 nm in diameter) due to
the high local temperatures during heat treatment process
3.5. Thermal Characterizations
Figure 8 shows the evolution of the thermal conductivity
of the Cu/CNF composite with the CNF volume percent
for materials processed by salt decomposition. Three
regimes can be observed: there are two horizontal re-
gimes between 0 to 5 vol.% and then from 5 to 10 vol.%
and one decreasing regime from 10 to 20 vol.% of CNF.
It should be observed that the 5 to 10 vol.% regime is
above the conductivity line for that of copper. The knee
occurs at about 10 vol.%. It should be noted that our goal
is to achieve conductivity higher than that of copper.
Using CNF in inorganic composite systems, there is no
published work today that can claim this goal. For the
first time, our work shows that in the case of salt de-
composition based PM, between the ranges of 5 to 10
vol.%, Cu/CNF composites have this distinction.
In our opinion, there are three important factors af-
fecting the conductivity of Cu/CNF composites that are
directly due to the processing method. The first is the
distribution of the reinforcement within the matrix, the
second is the nature of the interfaces and the third the
level of porosity (Figure 9).
In the salt decomposition coating with PM, once again
based on SEM and TEM studies, good dispersion of fi-
bers was observed. Further TEM studies (Figure 10)
confirm that there is a strong interface as evidenced by
lack of delamination and the presence of dislocation ac-
tivity. The sharp interface is primarily achieved through
a monolayer of oxygen bonding due to the functionaliza-
tion of fibers. Porosity is at a very low value of about 1%
and remains low up to a fiber volume fraction of 20%.
Finally the Cu grain size is micrometric that is favorable
to a good heat transfer. Indeed, each grain boundary acts
as a thermal resistance, so it is better from a thermal
point of view to have a few micrometric grains than
many nanometric grains.
4. Summary and Conclusions
Automotive, railway and aeronautic industries exten-
3 µm
3 µm
3 µm
Figure 7. SE micrographs of Cu/CNF micro-composite materials obtained by Copper Nitride salt decomposition. (a) After
solvent evaporation (80˚C, air), (b) after annealing (air 500˚C + Ar/H2 500˚C), (c) after annealing (Ar/H2 at 500˚C).
0 24 68101214161820
C NF (vol. %)
Figure 8. Evolution of the thermal conductivity with the CNF volume fraction of Cu/CNF composite elaborated by salt de-
composition and densified under Ar/H 2 atmosphere.
0510 1520 25 30
Figure 9. Evolution of the thermal conductivity with the porosity volume fraction for pur e copper materials densified under
Ar/H2 atmosphere.
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Figure 10. TEM micrographs of Cu/CNF composite material obtained by the salt decomposition method (a) and (b) bright
field, (c) diffraction pattern of the Cu matrix
sively use power electronic devices that require new ma-
terials for heat dissipation. Considering metal matrix
composites, and especially copper based composites, for
their high thermal conductivity values it is judicious to
add carbon in the form of micro or nano fibers to adapt
their thermomechanical properties. In our case, a multi-
layer heat sink consisting in a bulk part in Cu-CF with a
low CTE covered by a thin conductive layer of Cu-CNF
has been designed. Porosity content, dispersion of CNF
and control of reinforcement-matrix interfaces are the
main parameters to take into account when reaching high
thermal conductivity is the objective. A novel process
based on copper salt decomposition was examined for
the elaboration of Cu-CNF composite.
Detailed microstructural and thermal analysis clearly
indicate that the salt decomposition method produces the
desired result when the reinforcement is in the range of 5
to 10%. Thus, we report for the first time an increase of
the thermal conductivity of copper by incorporating car-
bon nanofibers. This enhancement in thermal properties
combined with a multilayer design enables an improve-
ment of reliability of power electronic systems thanks to
reduced thermomechanical stresses and a reduced chip
temperature during service. The properties of these cop-
per based composite materials can be adapted by modi-
fying volume fraction, distribution and nature (fibers,
nanofibers, diamond) of carbon reinforcement. Further-
more they can be assembled in various designs to match
the required specifications that make these composites
versatile materials.
5. Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank the CREMEM for TEM
samples preparation.
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