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The Weekender Nerd: What are carbon nanotubes, anyway?

In a recent news release (see "University of Michigan scientists develop super-cheap water toxin tests using nanotubes"), a research university announced a new, cheap technology for testing water for cyanobacteria-specific toxins. The cost-effective system, about the size of a pregnancy test, utilizes a specific kind of technology that many of us have only heard about in passing: nanotubes (carbon nanotubes, to be exact).

Here's a model of one variety of a carbon nanotube.

So what are carbon nanotubes? Well, let’s address the more general question first: what are nanotubes?

A nanotube is, you guessed it, a tiny cylindrical structure (hence the name, “super-tiny tube”). These little cylinders are measured on an impossibly small scale, one that is out of the range of the imagination to fathom. Nanotubes are measured on the nanometer scale, which equals out to one billionth of a meter. That’s right: one billionth. Try picturing that, and you’ll get a headache.

There are several types of nanotubes, including the aforementioned carbon variety. There is the inorganic nanotube, which is often composed of metal oxides and have been known to occur naturally in a few types of mineral deposits. Next up is the DNA nanotube (sounds sci-fi, doesn’t it?), which is seen in use in DNA nanotech. These tubes are similar again to the carbon versions, but are more easily modified and are less-effective at conducting electricity. Finally, there are the membrane nanotubes, which occur naturally in the plasma membrane of animal cells to connect cells over long distances.

But we’re looking at carbon nanotubes here, so I’ll leave the brief descriptions there. Carbon nanotubes (which are dubbed in the science world as CNTs) are one of the many existing forms of carbon (like diamonds are carbon, as is graphite), known as an allotrope.

The reason these CNTs are so useful to scientists – as can be seen in the water treatment technology linked to above – is that they are super effective conductors of electricity, and also reliable thermal conductors.

These cylindrical carbon molecules are used quite often in the fields of materials science, optics, electronics, and of course, nanotechnology. Check out the video below to really hammer this stuff in.

Ok so that’s what a nanotube is. With this limited information, you’re obviously not going to go out and become a quantum chemist or anything, but at least you can sound like you know what you’re talking about when nanotubes just pop up in conversation (as they often do). Stay tuned for the next installment of The Weekender Nerd, dedicated to informing all you weekend science enthusiasts out there.


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