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What are Carbon Nanotubes?

By S. Scolari
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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Carbon nanotubes are hexagonally shaped arrangements of carbon atoms that have been rolled into tubes. These tiny straw-like cylinders of pure carbon have useful electrical properties. They have already been used to make tiny transistors and one-dimensional copper wire.

They were developed by using nanotechnology, a relatively new field that involves building electronic circuits and devices from single atoms and molecules. Nano means one thousand millionth of a unit. A nanometer is therefore one thousand millionth of a meter. The first nanofabrication experiments occurred in 1990 when individual xenon atoms were placed on a nickel substrate and used to spell out a company logo. One primary goal of nanotechnology is to build computer chips and other devices that are thousands of times smaller than they are now.

Carbon nanotubes have enormous theoretical possibilities but have not lived up to the hype surrounding their development. Researchers have continued to look for ways to use them, however, as successful applications have the potential to be highly lucrative. Additionally, scientists have recently succeeded in altering carbon nanotubes so that they supply electrons when exposed to light. This was done by having two flat rings of carbon molecules sandwich a ferrocene (iron) molecule. Ferrocene is known for its tendency to relinquish electrons. When exposed to visible light, the carbon atoms accepted the ferrocene molecule.

This is the first time that carbon nanotubes have been hybridized to undergo light-induced electron transfer. Researchers say that these modified nanotubes are the first step in building solar cells using this technology.

The newly-discovered ability of carbon nanotubes to serve as electron sources has great potential. These atoms may one day replace the metal filaments in X-ray machines, which tend to burn out quickly. Scientists hope to use them to develop portable X-ray machines for use in airport security, ambulances, and customs work.

Carbon nanotubes also have great significance for use in flat-panel displays, microwave generators, devices for electric surge protection, and high intensity lamps.

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Discussion Comments

By anon333475 — On May 06, 2013

What are the advantages of using carbon nano tubes instead of using carbon fiber reinforced polymer and linear elastic materials?

By nanoshel — On Mar 10, 2011

Nanotechnology has already gone ahead with leaps and bounds. We are waiting for the day when everything will be NANO and the world will be on our pockets.

By dbuckley212 — On Feb 21, 2011

I believe that these will only be useful for transmission of electrical signals in small devices, because by the time they are used generally and effectively in technology, the world will likely be broadcasting all sound signals and connectivity via wireless methods. A television will probably only require a wire for power.

By Renegade — On Feb 20, 2011

Multiwalled carbon nanotubes are more resistant to chemicals than single walled ones, and are therefore more effective in environments where such durability is required. These are much like the russian dolls, with one tube being outside of another tube for added durability and protection.

By BioNerd — On Feb 17, 2011

Single walled carbon nanotubes are also hexagonally shaped and take on this very efficient format to make a network of connected pieces. This is also the design of many rock formations and of beehives, and the hexagon has been shown to be one of the strongest and most durable naturally occurring structures on earth. It is therefore quite effective in human designs as well.

By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 15, 2011

Once this study gets off the ground, its implications for modern technology will be immense. One day we may well have everything in our daily lives programmed and operated using tiny chips and computers which interact wirelessly to increase our comfort. With technology becoming this small, it may also be the case that we are able to construct large computer brains out of millions of tiny computer chips.

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