What are Some Uses for Carbon Nanotubes?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Carbon nanotubes are a relatively new allotrope of carbon. They consist of carbon atoms bonded into a tube shape, sometimes as single-wall carbon nanotubes, and sometimes as multi-wall carbon nanotubes. Although they have likely been synthesized in small quantities and observed since the invention of the transmission electron microscope in 1938, their present-day popularity follows from a paper published by Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima in 1991. Much of modern-day literature on the topic erroneously credits Iijima with their discovery.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Nanotubes are considered a part of the fullerene family, of which buckyballs are another members. While they are carbon atoms in the shape of a cylinder, buckyballs are arranged into a ball.

Carbon nanotubes have many remarkable properties that scientists are only just starting to exploit. First of all, they are extremely strong, probably one of the strongest materials that is even theoretically possible. Although the tubes are only about a nanometer wide, they can be very long in comparison to their width, a useful property for strength.

Although the longest nanotubes that have been synthesized today are only a few centimeters in length, research is ongoing to make them longer, and when "carbon nanotube rope" hits the market, it will be the strongest fiber available. The fiber is so strong that it is the only fiber that could be spun into a space elevator (a sky bridge connecting a counterweight in geosynchronous orbit to a position on the ground) without snapping. Recently, they have been proposed as a building material for armor so strong that bullets bounce right off it.

Single-walled carbon nanotubes are excellent conductors, and many computing companies are developing ways to use them in computers. Their use will allow the computing industry to create computers more powerful than those that can be fabricated via the conventional method of photolithography.

Carbon nanotubes are capable of ballistic electron transport, meaning they are excellent conductors in the direction of the tube. This led them to be proposed as the ideal building material for the next generation of televisions, although the improvements of LCDs, including OLCDs, makes this unlikely in the near-term future.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


I want to see more proof that these so called nano tubes actually exist. I mean, these tubes cannot be seen by the naked eye only by microscope. What if someone placed a picture under the lens of the microscope to fool all these "scientists". What if it's all wrong, huh? Spreading false information is not a nice thing.


@Mor - Honestly, the possibilities of carbon nanotubes are so varied, they are only just starting to explore them. They could end up completely revolutionizing the way we interact with the world.

I'm quite excited about how they could interact with us biologically. They are small and strong enough for doctors to be able to use them to make the most minute changes to our bodies, cutting away cancer like they've never been able to do before, or perhaps making nano machines that will help to maintain our health from within.


@anon91821 - I am so excited about the possibilities of carbon nanotubes.

The thing that I'm most hoping they'll be able to do is finally make a space elevator. This has been a concept for years but no one has been able to find a material that would work.

The idea is to stretch out a material so that it leads all the way into orbit and keep it rotating with the earth.

Then, you could send gear up the elevator. The main cost in reaching space is in the initial takeoff, as it takes so much to break gravity. By doing it this way, we'd be able to just ship materials into orbit and construct craft out there.

It would cost a lot initially of course, but in the long run it could open up the solar system for us, so that we could mine asteroids and explore other planets and moons.


Since their discovery, much research has been done and potential uses of these new molecules have been suggested. These include reducing radiation side effects, treating cancer, making light-weight body armor and other engineering applications. They really seem to be almost “miracle molecules” and their importance can only increase.


what are the current uses of nanotubes?


but what are they?

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