We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


Until a day or two ago, I tended to regard the word “nanotechnology” as nerd-speak for it will never happen. But there really does seem to be a buzz surrounding this latest nanotchnological announcement:

A joint effort between the University of Texas and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has created industrial-ready material made of nanotubes. The scientists reported this in the Friday edition of the journal Science.

The nanotubes are made of carbon and possess incredible strength. The sheets of nanotubes measure just a few times wider than the actual carbon atom, or 2 millionths-of-an-inch (2000 times thinner than paper). A square mile of this will could weigh as little as 170 pounds. The sheets are transparent, flexible and stronger than steel or high strength plastics.

Apparently that has applications to batteries, fast cars, flat screen TVs, and at least half a dozen other things I forget. Oh yes, it will make it easier to build those giant lifts that will take stuff into space for thirty pence per item, instead of for twenty zillion dollars per item which is what the Space Shuttle now costs.

This is the stuff that I find most impressive:

“Rarely is a processing advance so elegantly simple that rapid commercialization seems possible,” says Ray Baughman, a chemist from the University of Texas at Dallas. The process starts “with a ‘forest’ of half-millimeter-long nanotubes sticking upright on an iron-based platform. Pulling gently from the edge of the forest with an adhesive strip, such as a Post-It note, uproots a row containing millions of nanotubes. As these nanotubes pull out, they tangle with the next row, and so on.”

It sounds almost like something you could do at home, like spinning.

The point is: (a) this guy presumably knows what he is talking about, and (b) if he is wrong, he is going to be proved extremely wrong, extremely soon. He will not want that, so presumably he is on the level.

Most of the readers of this blog who care about this kind of stuff will already know all about this particular excitement. After all, Instapundit has already linked to it, and generally been all over the story. So has Tim Worstall. My point is not so much that hey, here is this techo-announcement. My point is that this particular techno-announcement does actually have a seriously historic feel to it. This sounds so very easy to do, and so very useful, for so many different kinds of stuff. This, in short, feels big.

Am I right?

28 comments to Nanotubes!

  • cirby

    They neglect to mention some of the “nightmare” uses of this stuff.

    Consumer packaging, for instance.

  • It sure looks exciting. Imagine the possible applications for perhaps laptop/notebook computers…. or even building materials. Anyone who appreciates the current (and potential future) sophistication of human civilisation should be interested.

  • Greg Schade

    Their already being used in bicycles:

  • Julian Morrison

    “it will never happen”, my foot. These things were only even discovered in the 90s. From soluble soot on a carbon arc, to industrial material in a decade and a half. Hardly “blue sky research”!

  • If this does turn out to be as big as it seems it will change space access for good, but not because it is going to be used in a space elevator.

    The energy inherent in a space elevator is probably the equivalent of a few dozen hydrogen bombs. If something goes wrong it could take out a few major cities within minutes. Getting the industry to write the insurance policy on it should be even more difficult than building the thing.

    What Nanotubes can be used for is building ultralightweight rocket engines and fuel tanks for the next generation of Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs) It will be interesting to see how fast the space industry catches on to this potential.

    Thirty pence a pound to LEO , I wish, but I’ll be happy if we can get the cost down to a couple of hundred bucks.

  • Taylor,
    Read the recent IEEE spectrum article on the space elevator.

    It mentions that if the elevator cord snapped, the section above the break would just float into space, the area above 100km would break into bits and burn in space, and the rest is still light as a feather, not causing much damage.

  • Perry E. Metzger

    Only one problem here. This isn’t nanotechnology (at least not in the sense that Eric Drexler used when he coined the term.) This is at best advanced materials science and synthetic organic chemistry. Nano is about building molecular machines, not doing advanced materials processing.

    I realize that now everything in synthetic organic chemistry and materials science is called “nanotechnology” because there are hundreds of millions of dollars in government money earmarked for “nanotechnology”, but that doesn’t mean this is “nanotechnolgy” — or perhaps we need a new word for what nanotechnology used to mean.

  • Julian Morrison

    The Drexler stuff might be better referred to as “nanomachinery”. I suspect it’s a dead end – not because it’s something we could never build, but because it’s adapting the tool to the old metaphor, not to the task. As a result it’s unnecessarily complicated. Think “robot maid” versus “dishwasher machine”. Nanotech for real is likely to look more like chemistry and materials science than like tiny robots, simply because that’s the sensible way to get things done on that scale.

  • Johnathan

    Brian, you have been too dismissive but you are right to be enthused. There have been lots of exciting things going on in this area for the last 10 years. It is no longer the stuff of crazy fantasy and the better science fiction books, but hard, practical reality. The venture capital industry is now buzzing in this area.

    Eric Drexler is a visionary. His “Engines of Creation” ought to be on the reading list of anyone seriously interested in the scientific trends were now seeing.


  • 1327

    If you ever get the chance go and see one of the public lectures done from time to time by Sir Harry Kroto on this subject as they are very good. He won his nobel prize for the discovery of the “buckyball”. Some of his lectures are online here.

  • Graham Smith

    It’s certainly true that the word “nanotechnology” is exp[loited for funding opportunities. If you just call something materials chemistry (which this is) then the paper chasers consider it boring and bin it. Put a flashy title including the word “nanotechnology” in however….

    As for Drexler style nanomachines (of the Fantastic Voyage sort) he kind of failed to think about one minor factor. Brownian Motion. Nanobots will forever remain in the realm of science fiction. For a thorough debunking of this I recommend attending a lecture by Prof Tony Ryan of Sheffield University, he also was on TV last christmas blowing a hole in the nonsense.

  • ShaneMcC

    When they say it is “stronger than steel” do they mean it is stronger than a steel sheet 2 millionths of an inch thick? I suspect that wouldn’t be very strong.

  • John East

    On a boring note, pre-Dexler we used the term nanotechnology to describe the fabrication of engineering materials, tooling and wear parts from sub-micron particles. This earlier meaning of the term applies to the technology being discussed here.

    ShaneMcC, yes that’s exactly what they mean, so until I see some test data listing the mechanical properties of this stuff I’ll remain very excited about the prospects, but reserve final judgement.

    Somewhat OT, but when I submitted the above message samizdata automatically rejected it because I used the word c+e+r+a+m+i+c. Why?

  • Ian Grey

    I have just finished re-reading “The Fountains of Paradise” by Arthur C Clarke which originally mooted the Space Elevator idea.

  • Chris Harper


    Arthur Clarke may have originated the concept of the communications satellite, but he DID NOT invent the idea of the Space Elevator.

    At the time Clarke wrote the book the idea was already a hundred years old.

  • Robert Hale

    A vivid description of a space elevator going wrong can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.

    Robert Hale

  • Graham Smith: I was sure I remembered Drexler countering the Brownian motion arguments somewhere. I couldn’t find where, but I did find an article by Richard Jones discussing it that suggested it made Drexler style manufacturing more challenging, rather than impossible.

    It also contains this ray of hope:

    The principles of self-assembly and molecular shape change that cell biology uses so extensively exploit the special physics of the nanoworld – namely ubiquitous Brownian motion and strong surface forces. In other words, if we want to fulfil the goals of radical nanotechnology, we should use soft materials and biological design paradigms.

    Not exactly what Drexler had in mind, perhaps, but close.

    And I’ve just noticed much more on this from Jones on his blog.

  • Graham Smith


    The first link makes interesting reading. Although I fear you may be guilty of a selective interpretation of it.

    take for example this.

    “The dominating force opposing motion therefore arises from viscosity rather than inertia. Fluid molecules, meanwhile, will continually bombard the object because of Brownian motion. The submarine would therefore be perpetually jostled around, while its internal parts and mechanisms would bend and flex in constant random motion. Another difference at the nano-scale is that surface forces are very strong: the nanosubmarine would probably just stick to the first surface it encountered.”

    The type of nanotechnology that Jones thinks will work, in terms of molecular self-assembly, is exactly the sort of thing that Tony Ryan, who i mentioned above, is pioneering. It should not be confused with tiny little submarines.

    Grey-goo (Von Neumann machines) are probably a separate matter.

  • At best advanced materials science

    At best??
    ::blink blink::

    Simply by being kick-ass materials science, it more than justifies a “yes” answer to Brian. At it’s crudest level — a source of readily-manufacturable, durable photovoltaic curtains — it stands to be a godsend.

  • Carbon Nano-tubes are at least 50 times stronger than steel by weight. Wiki is your friend.

    “The covalent bonding undergone in CNTs means they have very high tensile strengths. In 2000, a SWNT was tested to have a tensile strength of 63GPa (in comparison, high-carbon steel has a tensile strength of approximately 1.2GPa).”

  • Uncle Bill


  • John East

    Thanks Ivan. I had a look at the properties in Wiki and I have one reservation left. When I worked developing ceramics and composites for engineering applications the one key factor which doomed most new materials was defects, inclusions and manufacturing imperfections. 100% freedom from these faults is almost impossible to achieve. It would appear from the Wiki data that the properties of nanotubes are particularly sensitive to defects. It will be interesting to see if the carefully prepared lab results can be matched by subsequent field performance.

    Uncle bill, thanks for pointing out that “ceramic” works again.

  • John East

    Further thoughts on nanotubes. The 60GPa tensile strength quoted in the Wiki report will almost certainly be refering to a single defect free nanotube. So how will the bulk manufactured article perform. We are told that nanotube to nanotube bonding relies on Van der Vaals force. This is a very weak force, so anything manufactured purely from nanotubes would probably have the mechanical properties of a shreaded wheat.

    I think to make anything useful from nanotubes a binder will be needed and a composite similar to carbon fibre composite will be the finished form. The nanotube composite might be an advance on current high strength/light weight composites, but may not be the giant leap forwards that some people hope for.

  • moxirus

    Nanotech in the form of micro-machined devices and parts is already in wide use. Electro-mechanical devices like deformable mirrors for adaptive optics are produced by ebeam or etching techniques.

  • scott Jenks

    John, Read the paper(Link):
    higher order (50nm) bundles interbranch and provide strength. The density normalized strength looks 2 to 4 times higher than present materials.

  • If you want to get behind the hype around nanotechnology visit http://nanotech.nanopolis.net. I am waiting for your impressions.

  • I made my own tutorial on how to make a casing/cover to protect your iPod for free without buying materials. It worked for me, maybe it’ll work for you!


  • to Perry E. Metzger

    there is a lot nanomaterials processing leading to results which can be only attributed to the size of the material e.g. transparent metall oxides in high performance coatings

    For additional information on processing nanomaterials for use in coatings, inks and plastics, you may want to look at: http://www.hielscher.com/ultrasonics/nano_00.htm