Rice University chemists today revealed the first method for cutting carbon nanotubes into “seeds” and using those seeds to sprout new nanotubes. The findings offer hope that seeded growth may one day produce the large quantities of pure nanotubes needed for dozens of materials applications.
There are dozens of types of SWNTs, each with a characteristic atomic arrangement. These variations, though slight, can lead to drastically different properties: Some nanotubes are like metals, and others are semiconductors. While materials scientists are anxious to use SWNTs in everything from bacteria-sized computer chips to geostationary space elevators, most applications require pure compounds. Since all nanotube production methods, including the industrial-scale system Smalley invented in the 1990s, create a variety of 80-odd types, the challenge of making mass quantities of pure tubes – which Smalley referred to as “SWNT amplification” – is one of the major, unachieved goals of nanoscience.
The nanotube seeds are about 200 nanometers long and one nanometer wide – length-to-diameter dimensions roughly equal to a 16-foot garden house. After cutting, the seeds underwent a series of chemical modifications. Bits of iron were attached at each end, and a polymer wrapper was added that allowed the seeds to stick to a smooth piece of silicon oxide. After burning away the polymer and impurities, the seeds were placed inside a pressure-controlled furnace filled with ethylene gas. With the iron acting as a catalyst, the seeds grew spontaneously from both ends, growing to more than 30 times their initial length – imagine that 16-foot water hose growing by more than 500 feet – in just a few minutes