When carbon nanotubes entered the spotlight in 1991, visionaries and futurists had a field day. The structural, thermal, and electrical properties of these cylinder-shaped carbon molecules meant that, in theory, they could be used to build incredibly strong structures, such as a space elevator that would stretch 62,000 miles from Earth, or incredibly compact and fast digital computers. In practice, however, it has been tough to mass-produce nanotubes that are long enough for engineers to do any such amazing things. Now Nanocomp Technologies, based in Concord, New Hampshire, is trying to bring the future closer by producing, in bulk, yarns and sheets made from carbon nanotubes.
1. Get small. A nanometer is about the width of a strand of DNA; if you design, build, or use functional systems smaller than 100 of these, you’re a nanotechnologist.
2 By that definition, we have been doing nanotech for centuries. For instance, thecolors in medieval stained glass windows result from nanocrystalscreated in the heating and cooling of the glass.
3 Size matters. At the nano scale, materials take on unusual properties. Their color, transparency, and melting point often differ significantly from those of larger clumps of the same stuff.
4 Nanoscale bits of metal oxide, carbon fiber, or metal blends can detoxify hazardous waste: Their extreme solubility and chemical reactivity help them zero in on the nasty stuff.