Some excellent background on Nanotubes culled from PhysicsWeb
Nanotubes have an impressive list of attributes. They can behave like metals or semiconductors, can conduct electricity better than copper, can transmit heat better than diamond, and they rank among the strongest materials known - not bad for structures that are just a few nanometres across. Several decades from now we may see integrated circuits with components and wires made from nanotubes, and maybe even buildings that can snap back into shape after an earthquake.
Euler was the first to calculate what happens to a rod when it is compressed along its length (so-called axial compression). Initially the rod remains straight as the compression increases, before flipping into a curved form at the Euler limit. If this experiment is performed with a drinking straw at constant load, the straw will suddenly develop kinks, which remain if the load is removed. In other words, the kinks are plastic rather than elastic deformations.
Carbon nanotubes are different: first they will bend over to surprisingly large angles, before they start to ripple and buckle, and then finally develop kinks as well. The amazing thing about carbon nanotubes is that these deformations are elastic - they all disappear completely when the load is removed.
To see how these properties might be useful, imagine owning a BMW car made from carbon nanotubes and being unlucky enough to crash into a wall. Due to the high force of the impact, the nanotubes would bend and then buckle, squeezing your BMW into the shape of something like a Volkswagen Beetle. This would happen over a relatively long distance, which would provide an effective "crunch zone". Moreover, after the crash all the buckles and kinks would unfold and your BMW would "reappear" as if nothing had happened! To be completely safe, however, the nanotubes would have to be combined with energy-absorbing materials, otherwise the collision between the car and the wall would be completely elastic and you would rebound from the wall with the same speed as you hit it!
Two groups of physicists have shown that carbon nanotubes respond to magnetic fields in ways that are not seen in other materials. Junichiro Kono and colleagues at Rice University and Florida State University and Alexey Bezryadin and co-workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered that semiconducting nanotubes can be made metallic, and vice versa, by applying a magnetic field. In addition to their fundamental importance, the results could have practical applications (Science 304 1129 and 1132).
Carbon nanotubes are essentially rolled up sheets of graphite, just nanometres in diameter, that can be metallic or semiconducting depending on the direction in which the sheet has been rolled up. Kono and co-workers performed optical absorption and emission spectroscopy on solutions of semiconducting single wall nanotubes placed in strong magnetic fields of 45 Tesla. They found that the band gap between the conduction and valence bands in the nanotubes became smaller as the strength of the magnetic field was increased.
"This phenomenon is unique among known materials," Kono told PhysicsWeb. "Ordinary semiconductors show the opposite behaviour." The team believes that the band gap could disappear completely in higher fields, which would cause the semiconducting nanotubes to become metallic.
Meanwhile, Bezryadin and colleagues found that the band gap in a multi-walled metallic nanotube -- which was initially zero -- gradually widened as a magnetic field was applied, turning it into a semiconductor. Moreover, as the applied field was increased further, the band gap dropped back to zero and the nanotube became a metal again.
Although these effects have never been observed in nanotubes before, they agree with theoretical predictions. Both experiments also highlight the importance of a subtle quantum effect known as the Aharonov-Bohm effect. Although this effect has been observed in many systems before, including nanotubes, this is the first time that it has been shown to have an effect on the band structure of a solid.
"The discovery could lead to novel magneto-optical or magneto-electrical switching devices by magnetically controlling the metallicity of nanotubes," Kono told PhysicsWeb. "It could also lead to novel experiments on one-dimensional systems."
"Our work demonstrates that hollow molecules can change the energies of their orbitals in response to the magnetic flux threaded through the molecule," said Bezryadin. "This observation may have interdisciplinary importance, since electronic orbitals not only determine the energy of the molecule but also its chemical, mechanical and other properties. It might therefore be possible to control these properties by a magnetic field."
Kono's group now plans to study the effects of even stronger magnetic fields on nanotubes, while Bezryadin and co-workers will repeat their experiment at ultracold temperatures to obtain an even clearer picture of how the electron energy levels in the nanotubes respond to magnetic fields.