Much Ado About Nanotubes

Great news! Nanotube technology is here to stay! And, physicists tell us that this world of ultra-small atomic tubular structures is soon going to revolutionize our lives in the form of micromachinery...

Think small...really, really small. Physicist John Pazik at the Office of Naval Research and his team of funded researchers is looking at the carbon nanotube with particular interest. This garden-variety nanotube - less than a millionth the thickness of a dime - is essentially a hollow cylinder of hexagonally arrayed carbon, sealed at the ends. The really clever thing about carbon nanotubes is that they usually nest one tube inside the other. By prying one end open - and that's the tricky part - these tubes slide in and out of each other about a billion times a second with little or no friction (it's the van der Waals force, attracting all neutral atoms to one another, that causes the inner nanotubes to be pulled back inside the sheath of outer tubes (and you thought you'd never find a practical reason for memorizing that definition in Physics 101!)). This, of course, is just what we want for the mechanical parts of nanoscale machines.

"If you want a nanoscale machine with moving parts that can both generate and respond to electronic signals," says Pazik, "those parts have got to be lightening-bolt fast." Pazik's researchers have now shown that this can conceivably create a breakneck gigahertz oscillation frequency, and could lead to such things as hand-held DNA detectors, superfast optical detectors, receivers sensitive to high frequency electromagnetic signals, and computer chip speeds faster than the best of today's Pentium processors.

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