Scientists find a nano route to super materials

Cambridge University scientists have discovered a way of producing carbon nanotubes which could lead to industrial materials one hundred times stronger than steel.

Carbon nanotubes are molecules arranged like a sheet of graphite that has been rolled into a cylinder shape. Each tube is just one nanometre in diameter.The Cambridge team produced the nanotubes within a crystalline structure. In this form the material is a hundred times stronger than steel and has superconductor properties.

‘Our findings were totally unexpected – it was one of those amazing results that happens almost by chance. It means that we now have the technology to fabricate nanotubes with the electrical and mechanical properties that we require,’ said project leader Professor Mark Welland.

His team at the university’s nanoscale science laboratory were actually trying to repeat experiments conducted elsewhere to fill nanotubes with metal. But the team found it had produced tower-like crystalline structures of aligned carbon nanotubes all with identical mechanical and electrical properties.

By changing a nanotube’s molecular shape scientists can change its electrical properties. One shape, for example, will provide a superconducting material, while another shape produces a semiconductor.

The potential applications range from lighter, stronger composite materials, to hydrogen energy storage devices, to tweezers for nanoscale fabrication of electronic devices.

The significance of carbon nanotubes was recognised in 1996 when the Nobel prize for chemistry was awarded to Sir Harry Kroto of the University of Surrey and Richard Smalley of Texas University for their work in the field.