Nanoknife is a cut above

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder have designed a carbon nanotube knife that could work like a wire cheese slicer.


Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) have designed a carbon nanotube knife that could work like a wire cheese slicer. The prototype nanoknife could allow scientists to cut and study cells more precisely than they can today.


Biologists typically use conventional diamond or glass knives, which cut frozen cell samples at a large angle, forcing the samples to bend and sometimes later crack. Because carbon nanotubes are extremely strong and slender in diameter, they make ideal materials for thinly cutting precise slivers of cells. In particular, scientists might use the nanoknife to make 3D images of cells and tissues for electron tomography, which requires samples less than 300 nanometres thick.


By manipulating carbon nanotubes inside scanning electron microscopes, scientists have begun crafting a suite of research tools, including nanotweezers, nanobearings and nanooscillators. To design the nanoknife, the NIST and CU scientists welded a carbon nanotube between two electrochemically sharpened tungsten needles. In the resulting prototype, the nanotube stretches between two ends of a tungsten wire loop. The knife resembles a steel wire that cuts a block of cheese.


To begin demonstrating the feasibility of their knife design, the researchers assessed its mechanical strength in force tests, applying increasing pressure to the device. The team found that the welds were the weakest point of the nanoknife, and they are now experimenting with alternative welding techniques. The researchers plan to test the nanoknife on a block of wax later this year. Cells typically are immobilised in wax for dissection and microscopy.