Carbon nanotube

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Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are allotropes of carbon with a cylindrical nanostructure. Nanotubes have been constructed with length-to-diameter ratio of up to 132,000,000:1,[1] significantly larger than for any other material. These cylindrical carbon molecules have unusual properties, which are valuable for nanotechnology, electronics, optics and other fields of materials science and technology. In particular, owing to their extraordinary thermal conductivity and mechanical and electrical properties, carbon nanotubes may find applications as additives to various structural materials.

Nanotubes are members of the fullerene structural family, which also includes the spherical buckyballs, and the ends of a nanotube may be capped with a hemisphere of the buckyball structure. Their name is derived from their long, hollow structure with the walls formed by one-atom-thick sheets of carbon, called graphene. These sheets are rolled at specific and discrete ("chiral") angles, and the combination of the rolling angle and radius decides the nanotube properties; for example, whether the individual nanotube shell is a metal or semiconductor. Nanotubes are categorized as single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) and multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs). Individual nanotubes naturally align themselves into "ropes" held together by van der Waals forces, more specifically, pi-stacking.

Applied quantum chemistry, specifically, orbital hybridization best describes chemical bonding in nanotubes. The chemical bonding of nanotubes is composed entirely of sp2 bonds, similar to those of graphite. These bonds, which are stronger than the sp3 bonds found in alkanes, provide nanotubules with their unique strength.


Types of carbon nanotubes and related structures


There is no consensus on some terms describing carbon nanotubes in scientific literature: both "-wall" and "-walled" are being used in combination with "single", "double", "triple" or "multi", and the letter C is often omitted in the abbreviation; for example, multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT).


The (n,m) nanotube naming scheme can be thought of as a vector (Ch) in an infinite graphene sheet that describes how to "roll up" the graphene sheet to make the nanotube. T denotes the tube axis, and a1 and a2 are the unit vectors of graphene in real space.
A scanning tunneling microscopy image of single-walled carbon nanotube
A transmission electron microscopy image of a single-walled carbon nanotube

Most single-walled nanotubes (SWNT) have a diameter of close to 1 nanometer, with a tube length that can be many millions of times longer. The structure of a SWNT can be conceptualized by wrapping a one-atom-thick layer of graphite called graphene into a seamless cylinder. The way the graphene sheet is wrapped is represented by a pair of indices (n,m) . The integers n and m denote the number of unit vectors along two directions in the honeycomb crystal lattice of graphene. If m = 0, the nanotubes are called zigzag nanotubes, and if n = m, the nanotubes are called armchair nanotubes. Otherwise, they are called chiral. The diameter of an ideal nanotube can be calculated from its (n,m) indices as follows

 d = \frac{a}{\pi} \sqrt{(n^2 + nm + m^2)}.

where a = 0.246 nm.

SWNTs are an important variety of carbon nanotube because most of their properties change significantly with the (n,m) values, and this dependence is non-monotonic (see Kataura plot). In particular, their band gap can vary from zero to about 2 eV and their electrical conductivity can show metallic or semiconducting behavior. One useful application of SWNTs is in the development of the first intramolecular field-effect transistors (FET). Production of the first intramolecular logic gate using SWNT FETs has recently become possible as well.[2] To create a logic gate you must have both a p-FET and an n-FET. Because SWNTs are p-FETs when exposed to oxygen and n-FETs otherwise, it is possible to protect half of an SWNT from oxygen exposure, while exposing the other half to oxygen. This results in a single SWNT that acts as a NOT logic gate with both p and n-type FETs within the same molecule.

Single-walled nanotubes are dropping precipitously in price, from around $1500 per gram as of 2000 to retail prices of around $50 per gram of as-produced 40–60% by weight SWNTs as of March 2010.[3][4]


A scanning electron microscopy image of carbon nanotubes bundles
Triple-walled armchair carbon nanotube

Multi-walled nanotubes (MWNT) consist of multiple rolled layers (concentric tubes) of graphite. There are two models that can be used to describe the structures of multi-walled nanotubes. In the Russian Doll model, sheets of graphite are arranged in concentric cylinders, e.g., a (0,8) single-walled nanotube (SWNT) within a larger (0,17) single-walled nanotube. In the Parchment model, a single sheet of graphite is rolled in around itself, resembling a scroll of parchment or a rolled newspaper. The interlayer distance in multi-walled nanotubes is close to the distance between graphene layers in graphite, approximately 3.4 Å. The Russian Doll structure is observed more commonly. Its individual shells can be described as SWNTs, which can be metallic or semiconducting. Because of statistical probability and restrictions on the relative diameters of the individual tubes, one of the shells, and thus the whole MWNT, is usually a zero-gap metal.

Double-walled carbon nanotubes (DWNT) form a special class of nanotubes because their morphology and properties are similar to those of SWNT but their resistance to chemicals is significantly improved. This is especially important when functionalization is required (this means grafting of chemical functions at the surface of the nanotubes) to add new properties to the CNT. In the case of SWNT, covalent functionalization will break some C=C double bonds, leaving "holes" in the structure on the nanotube and, thus, modifying both its mechanical and electrical properties. In the case of DWNT, only the outer wall is modified. DWNT synthesis on the gram-scale was first proposed in 2003[5] by the CCVD technique, from the selective reduction of oxide solutions in methane and hydrogen.

The telescopic motion ability of inner shells [6] and their unique mechanical properties [7] permit to use multi-walled nanotubes as main movable arms in coming nanomechanical devices. Retraction force that occurs to telescopic motion caused by the Lennard-Johnes interaction between shells and its value is about 1.5 nN.[8]


A stable nanobud structure

In theory, a nanotorus is a carbon nanotube bent into a torus (doughnut shape). Nanotori are predicted to have many unique properties, such as magnetic moments 1000 times larger than previously expected for certain specific radii.[9] Properties such as magnetic moment, thermal stability, etc. vary widely depending on radius of the torus and radius of the tube.[9][10]


Carbon nanobuds are a newly created material combining two previously discovered allotropes of carbon: carbon nanotubes and fullerenes. In this new material, fullerene-like "buds" are covalently bonded to the outer sidewalls of the underlying carbon nanotube. This hybrid material has useful properties of both fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. In particular, they have been found to be exceptionally good field emitters. In composite materials, the attached fullerene molecules may function as molecular anchors preventing slipping of the nanotubes, thus improving the composite’s mechanical properties.

Cup stacked carbon nanotubes

Cup-stacked carbon nanotubes (CSCNTs) differ from other quasi-1D carbon structures, which normally behave as quasi-metallic conductors of electrons. CSCNTs exhibit semiconducting behaviors due to the stacking microstructure of graphene layers.[11]

Extreme carbon nanotubes


The observation of the longest carbon nanotubes (18.5 cm long) was reported in 2009. These nanotubes were grown on Si substrates using an improved chemical vapor deposition (CVD) method and represent electrically uniform arrays of single-walled carbon nanotubes.[1]

The shortest carbon nanotube is the organic compound cycloparaphenylene, which was synthesized in early 2009.[12][13][14]

The thinnest carbon nanotube is armchair (2,2) CNT with a diameter of 3 Å. This nanotube was grown inside a multi-walled carbon nanotube. Assigning of carbon nanotube type was done by combination of high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM), Raman spectroscopy and density functional theory (DFT) calculations.[15]

The thinnest freestanding single-walled carbon nanotube is about 4.3 Å in diameter. Researchers suggested that it can be either (5,1) or (4,2) SWCNT, but exact type of carbon nanotube remains questionable.[16] (3,3), (4,3) and (5,1) carbon nanotubes (all about 4 Å in diameter) were unambiguously identified using more precise aberration-corrected high-resolution transmission electron microscopy. However, they were found inside of double-walled carbon nanotubes.[17]



Carbon nanotubes are the strongest and stiffest materials yet discovered in terms of tensile strength and elastic modulus respectively. This strength results from the covalent sp2 bonds formed between the individual carbon atoms. In 2000, a multi-walled carbon nanotube was tested to have a tensile strength of 63 gigapascals (GPa).[18] (For illustration, this translates into the ability to endure tension of a weight equivalent to 6422 kg on a cable with cross-section of 1 mm2.) Further studies, conducted in 2008, revealed that individual CNT shells have strengths of up to ~100 GPa, which is in good agreement with quantum/atomistic models.[19] Since carbon nanotubes have a low density for a solid of 1.3 to 1.4 g/cm3,[20] its specific strength of up to 48,000 kN·m·kg−1 is the best of known materials, compared to high-carbon steel's 154 kN·m·kg−1.

Under excessive tensile strain, the tubes will undergo plastic deformation, which means the deformation is permanent. This deformation begins at strains of approximately 5% and can increase the maximum strain the tubes undergo before fracture by releasing strain energy.

Although the strength of individual CNT shells is extremely high, weak shear interactions between adjacent shells and tubes leads to significant reductions in the effective strength of multi-walled carbon nanotubes and carbon nanotube bundles down to only a few GPa’s.[21] This limitation has been recently addressed by applying high-energy electron irradiation, which crosslinks inner shells and tubes, and effectively increases the strength of these materials to ~60 GPa for multi-walled carbon nanotubes[19] and ~17 GPa for double-walled carbon nanotube bundles.[21]

CNTs are not nearly as strong under compression. Because of their hollow structure and high aspect ratio, they tend to undergo buckling when placed under compressive, torsional, or bending stress.[22]

Comparison of mechanical properties[23][24][25][26]
Material Young's modulus (TPa) Tensile strength (GPa) Elongation at break (%)
SWNTE ~1 (from 1 to 5) 13–53 16
Armchair SWNTT 0.94 126.2 23.1
Zigzag SWNTT 0.94 94.5 15.6–17.5
Chiral SWNT 0.92
MWNTE 0.2[18]–0.8[27]–0.95[18] 11[18]–63[18]–150[27]
Stainless steelE 0.186[28]–0.214[29] 0.38[28]–1.55[29] 15–50
Kevlar–29&149E 0.06–0.18[30] 3.6–3.8[30] ~2

EExperimental observation; TTheoretical prediction

The above discussion referred to axial properties of the nanotube, whereas simple geometrical considerations suggest that carbon nanotubes should be much softer in the radial direction than along the tube axis. Indeed, TEM observation of radial elasticity suggested that even the van der Waals forces can deform two adjacent nanotubes.[31] Nanoindentation experiments, performed by several groups on multiwalled carbon nanotubes [32][33] and tapping/contact mode atomic force microscope measurement performed on single-walled carbon nanotube,[34] indicated Young's modulus of the order of several GPa confirming that CNTs are indeed rather soft in the radial direction.


Standard single-walled carbon nanotubes can withstand a pressure up to 24GPa without deformation. They then undergo a transformation to superhard phase nanotubes. Maximum pressures measured using current experimental techniques are around 55GPa. However, these new superhard phase nanotubes collapse at an even higher, albeit unknown, pressure.

The bulk modulus of superhard phase nanotubes is 462 to 546 GPa, even higher than that of diamond(420 GPa for single diamond crystal). [35]


Multi-walled nanotubes are multiple concentric nanotubes precisely nested within one another. These exhibit a striking telescoping property whereby an inner nanotube core may slide, almost without friction, within its outer nanotube shell, thus creating an atomically perfect linear or rotational bearing. This is one of the first true examples of molecular nanotechnology, the precise positioning of atoms to create useful machines. Already, this property has been utilized to create the world's smallest rotational motor.[36] Future applications such as a gigahertz mechanical oscillator are also envisaged.


Band structures computed using tight binding approximation for (6,0) CNT (zigzag, metallic) (10,2) CNT (semiconducting) and (10,10) CNT (armchair, metallic).

Because of the symmetry and unique electronic structure of graphene, the structure of a nanotube strongly affects its electrical properties. For a given (n,m) nanotube, if n = m, the nanotube is metallic; if nm is a multiple of 3, then the nanotube is semiconducting with a very small band gap, otherwise the nanotube is a moderate semiconductor. Thus all armchair (n = m) nanotubes are metallic, and nanotubes (6,4), (9,1), etc. are semiconducting.[37]

However, this rule has exceptions, because curvature effects in small diameter carbon nanotubes can strongly influence electrical properties. Thus, a (5,0) SWCNT that should be semiconducting in fact is metallic according to the calculations. Likewise, vice versa-- zigzag and chiral SWCNTs with small diameters that should be metallic have finite gap (armchair nanotubes remain metallic).[37] In theory, metallic nanotubes can carry an electric current density of 4 × 109 A/cm2, which is more than 1,000 times greater than those of metals such as copper,[38] where for copper interconnects current densities are limited by electromigration.

Multiwalled carbon nanotubes with interconnected inner shells show superconductivity with a relatively high transition temperature Tc = 12 K. In contrast, the Tc value is an order of magnitude lower for ropes of single-walled carbon nanotubes or for MWNTs with usual, non-interconnected shells.[39]



All nanotubes are expected to be very good thermal conductors along the tube, exhibiting a property known as "ballistic conduction", but good insulators laterally to the tube axis. Measurements show that a SWNT has a room-temperature thermal conductivity along its axis of about 3500 W·m−1·K−1;[40] compare this to copper, a metal well known for its good thermal conductivity, which transmits 385 W·m−1·K−1. A SWNT has a room-temperature thermal conductivity across its axis (in the radial direction) of about 1.52 W·m−1·K−1,[41] which is about as thermally conductive as soil. The temperature stability of carbon nanotubes is estimated to be up to 2800 °C in vacuum and about 750 °C in air.[42]


As with any material, the existence of a crystallographic defect affects the material properties. Defects can occur in the form of atomic vacancies. High levels of such defects can lower the tensile strength by up to 85%. An important example is the Stone Wales defect, which creates a pentagon and heptagon pair by rearrangement of the bonds. Because of the very small structure of CNTs, the tensile strength of the tube is dependent on its weakest segment in a similar manner to a chain, where the strength of the weakest link becomes the maximum strength of the chain.

Crystallographic defects also affect the tube's electrical properties. A common result is lowered conductivity through the defective region of the tube. A defect in armchair-type tubes (which can conduct electricity) can cause the surrounding region to become semiconducting, and single monoatomic vacancies induce magnetic properties.[43]

Crystallographic defects strongly affect the tube's thermal properties. Such defects lead to phonon scattering, which in turn increases the relaxation rate of the phonons. This reduces the mean free path and reduces the thermal conductivity of nanotube structures. Phonon transport simulations indicate that substitutional defects such as nitrogen or boron will primarily lead to scattering of high-frequency optical phonons. However, larger-scale defects such as Stone Wales defects cause phonon scattering over a wide range of frequencies, leading to a greater reduction in thermal conductivity.[44]

One-dimensional transport

Because of the nanoscale dimensions, electrons propagate only along the tube's axis and electron transport involves many quantum effects. Because of this, carbon nanotubes are frequently referred to as “one-dimensional”.


The toxicity of carbon nanotubes has been an important question in nanotechnology. Such research has just begun. The data are still fragmentary and subject to criticism. Preliminary results highlight the difficulties in evaluating the toxicity of this heterogeneous material. Parameters such as structure, size distribution, surface area, surface chemistry, surface charge, and agglomeration state as well as purity of the samples, have considerable impact on the reactivity of carbon nanotubes. However, available data clearly show that, under some conditions, nanotubes can cross membrane barriers, which suggests that, if raw materials reach the organs, they can induce harmful effects such as inflammatory and fibrotic reactions.[45]

A study led by Alexandra Porter from the University of Cambridge shows that CNTs can enter human cells and accumulate in the cytoplasm, causing cell death.[46]

Results of rodent studies collectively show that regardless of the process by which CNTs were synthesized and the types and amounts of metals they contained, CNTs were capable of producing inflammation, epithelioid granulomas (microscopic nodules), fibrosis, and biochemical/toxicological changes in the lungs.[47] Comparative toxicity studies in which mice were given equal weights of test materials showed that SWCNTs were more toxic than quartz, which is considered a serious occupational health hazard when chronically inhaled. As a control, ultrafine carbon black was shown to produce minimal lung responses.[48]

The needle-like fiber shape of CNTs is similar to asbestos fibers. This raises the idea that widespread use of carbon nanotubes may lead to pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs or peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the abdomen (both caused by exposure to asbestos). A recently-published pilot study supports this prediction.[49] Scientists exposed the mesothelial lining of the body cavity of mice to long multiwalled carbon nanotubes and observed asbestos-like, length-dependent, pathogenic behavior that included inflammation and formation of lesions known as granulomas. Authors of the study conclude:

"This is of considerable importance, because research and business communities continue to invest heavily in carbon nanotubes for a wide range of products under the assumption that they are no more hazardous than graphite. Our results suggest the need for further research and great caution before introducing such products into the market if long-term harm is to be avoided."[49]

According to co-author Dr. Andrew Maynard:

"This study is exactly the kind of strategic, highly focused research needed to ensure the safe and responsible development of nanotechnology. It looks at a specific nanoscale material expected to have widespread commercial applications and asks specific questions about a specific health hazard. Even though scientists have been raising concerns about the safety of long, thin carbon nanotubes for over a decade, none of the research needs in the current U.S. federal nanotechnology environment, health and safety risk research strategy address this question."[50]

Although further research is required, the available data suggests that under certain conditions, especially those involving chronic exposure, carbon nanotubes can pose a serious risk to human health.[45][46][48][49]


Powder of carbon nanotubes

Techniques have been developed to produce nanotubes in sizeable quantities, including arc discharge, laser ablation, high-pressure carbon monoxide (HiPco), and chemical vapor deposition (CVD). Most of these processes take place in vacuum or with process gases. CVD growth of CNTs can occur in vacuum or at atmospheric pressure. Large quantities of nanotubes can be synthesized by these methods; advances in catalysis and continuous growth processes are making CNTs more commercially viable.

Arc discharge

Nanotubes were observed in 1991 in the carbon soot of graphite electrodes during an arc discharge, by using a current of 100 amps, that was intended to produce fullerenes.[51] However the first macroscopic production of carbon nanotubes was made in 1992 by two researchers at NEC's Fundamental Research Laboratory.[52] The method used was the same as in 1991. During this process, the carbon contained in the negative electrode sublimates because of the high-discharge temperatures. Because nanotubes were initially discovered using this technique, it has been the most widely-used method of nanotube synthesis.

The yield for this method is up to 30% by weight and it produces both single- and multi-walled nanotubes with lengths of up to 50 micrometers with few structural defects.[20]

Laser ablation

In the laser ablation process, a pulsed laser vaporizes a graphite target in a high-temperature reactor while an inert gas is bled into the chamber. Nanotubes develop on the cooler surfaces of the reactor as the vaporized carbon condenses. A water-cooled surface may be included in the system to collect the nanotubes.

This process was developed by Dr. Richard Smalley and co-workers at Rice University, who at the time of the discovery of carbon nanotubes, were blasting metals with a laser to produce various metal molecules. When they heard of the existence of nanotubes they replaced the metals with graphite to create multi-walled carbon nanotubes.[53] Later that year the team used a composite of graphite and metal catalyst particles (the best yield was from a cobalt and nickel mixture) to synthesize single-walled carbon nanotubes.[54]

The laser ablation method yields around 70% and produces primarily single-walled carbon nanotubes with a controllable diameter determined by the reaction temperature. However, it is more expensive than either arc discharge or chemical vapor deposition.[20]

Chemical vapor deposition (CVD)

Nanotubes being grown by plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition

The catalytic vapor phase deposition of carbon was first reported in 1959,[55] but it was not until 1993[56] that carbon nanotubes were formed by this process. In 2007, researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) developed a process to grow aligned carbon nanotube arrays of 18 mm length on a FirstNano ET3000 carbon nanotube growth system.[57]

During CVD, a substrate is prepared with a layer of metal catalyst particles, most commonly nickel, cobalt,[58] iron, or a combination.[59] The metal nanoparticles can also be produced by other ways, including reduction of oxides or oxides solid solutions. The diameters of the nanotubes that are to be grown are related to the size of the metal particles. This can be controlled by patterned (or masked) deposition of the metal, annealing, or by plasma etching of a metal layer. The substrate is heated to approximately 700°C. To initiate the growth of nanotubes, two gases are bled into the reactor: a process gas (such as ammonia, nitrogen or hydrogen) and a carbon-containing gas (such as acetylene, ethylene, ethanol or methane). Nanotubes grow at the sites of the metal catalyst; the carbon-containing gas is broken apart at the surface of the catalyst particle, and the carbon is transported to the edges of the particle, where it forms the nanotubes. This mechanism is still being studied. The catalyst particles can stay at the tips of the growing nanotube during the growth process, or remain at the nanotube base, depending on the adhesion between the catalyst particle and the substrate. Thermal catalytic decomposition of hydrocarbon has become an active area of research and can be a promising route for the bulk production of CNTs. Fluidised bed reactor is the most widely used reactor for CNT preparation. Scale-up of the reactor is the major challenge.[60] [61]

CVD is a common method for the commercial production of carbon nanotubes. For this purpose, the metal nanoparticles are mixed with a catalyst support such as MgO or Al2O3 to increase the surface area for higher yield of the catalytic reaction of the carbon feedstock with the metal particles. One issue in this synthesis route is the removal of the catalyst support via an acid treatment, which sometimes could destroy the original structure of the carbon nanotubes. However, alternative catalyst supports that are soluble in water have proven effective for nanotube growth.[62]

If a plasma is generated by the application of a strong electric field during the growth process (plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition), then the nanotube growth will follow the direction of the electric field.[63] By adjusting the geometry of the reactor it is possible to synthesize vertically aligned carbon nanotubes[64] (i.e., perpendicular to the substrate), a morphology that has been of interest to researchers interested in the electron emission from nanotubes. Without the plasma, the resulting nanotubes are often randomly oriented. Under certain reaction conditions, even in the absence of a plasma, closely spaced nanotubes will maintain a vertical growth direction resulting in a dense array of tubes resembling a carpet or forest.

Of the various means for nanotube synthesis, CVD shows the most promise for industrial-scale deposition, because of its price/unit ratio, and because CVD is capable of growing nanotubes directly on a desired substrate, whereas the nanotubes must be collected in the other growth techniques. The growth sites are controllable by careful deposition of the catalyst. In 2007, a team from Meijo University demonstrated a high-efficiency CVD technique for growing carbon nanotubes from camphor.[65] Researchers at Rice University, until recently led by the late Richard Smalley, have concentrated upon finding methods to produce large, pure amounts of particular types of nanotubes. Their approach grows long fibers from many small seeds cut from a single nanotube; all of the resulting fibers were found to be of the same diameter as the original nanotube and are expected to be of the same type as the original nanotube.[66]

Super-growth CVD

Super-growth CVD (water-assisted chemical vapor deposition) process was developed by Kenji Hata, Sumio Iijima and co-workers at AIST, Japan.[67] In this process, the activity and lifetime of the catalyst are enhanced by addition of water into the CVD reactor. Dense millimeter-tall nanotube "forests", aligned normal to the substrate, were produced. The forests growth rate could be expressed, as

 H(t) = {\beta}{\tau}_o ({1 - e^{-t / {\tau}_o}}) .

In this equation, β is the initial growth rate and τo is the characteristic catalyst lifetime.[68]

Their specific surface exceeds 1,000 m2/g (capped) or 2,200 m2/g (uncapped),[69] surpassing the value of 400–1,000 m2/g for HiPco samples. The synthesis efficiency is about 100 times higher than for the laser ablation method. The time required to make SWNT forests of the height of 2.5 mm by this method was 10 minutes in 2004. Those SWNT forests can be easily separated from the catalyst, yielding clean SWNT material (purity >99.98%) without further purification. For comparison, the as-grown HiPco CNTs contain about 5–35%[70] of metal impurities; it is therefore purified through dispersion and centrifugation that damages the nanotubes. The super-growth process avoids this problem. Patterned highly organized single-walled nanotube structures were successfully fabricated using the super-growth technique.

The mass density of super-growth CNTs is about 0.037 g/cm3.[71][72] It is much lower than that of conventional CNT powders (~1.34 g/cm3), probably because the latter contain metals and amorphous carbon.

The super-growth method is basically a variation of CVD. Therefore, it is possible to grow material containing SWNT, DWNTs and MWNTs, and to alter their ratios by tuning the growth conditions.[73] Their ratios change by the thinness of the catalyst. Many MWNTs are included so that the diameter of the tube is wide.[72]

The vertically aligned nanotube forests originate from a "zipping effect" when they are immersed in a solvent and dried. The zipping effect is caused by the surface tension of the solvent and the van der Waals forces between the carbon nanotubes. It aligns the nanotubes into a dense material, which can be formed in various shapes, such as sheets and bars, by applying weak compression during the process. Densification increases the Vickers hardness by about 70 times and density is 0.55 g/cm3. The packed carbon nanotubes are more than 1 mm long and have a carbon purity of 99.9% or higher; they also retain the desirable alignment properties of the nanotubes forest.[74]

Natural, incidental, and controlled flame environments

Fullerenes and carbon nanotubes are not necessarily products of high-tech laboratories; they are commonly formed in such mundane places as ordinary flames,[75] produced by burning methane,[76] ethylene,[77] and benzene,[78] and they have been found in soot from both indoor and outdoor air.[79] However, these naturally occurring varieties can be highly irregular in size and quality because the environment in which they are produced is often highly uncontrolled. Thus, although they can be used in some applications, they can lack in the high degree of uniformity necessary to satisfy the many needs of both research and industry. Recent efforts have focused on producing more uniform carbon nanotubes in controlled flame environments.[80][81][82][83] Such methods have promise for large-scale, low-cost nanotube synthesis, though they must compete with rapidly developing large scale CVD production.

Application-related issues

Centrifuge tube with a solution of carbon nanotubes, which were sorted by diameter using density-gradient ultracentrifugation.[84]

Many electronic applications of carbon nanotubes crucially rely on techniques of selectively producing either semiconducting or metallic CNTs, preferably of a certain chirality. Several methods of separating semiconducting and metallic CNTs are known, but most of them are not yet suitable for large-scale technological processes. The most efficient method relies on density-gradient ultracentrifugation, which separates surfactant-wrapped nanotubes by the minute difference in their density. This density difference often translates into difference in the nanotube diameter and (semi)conducting properties.[84] Another method of separation uses a sequence of freezing, thawing, and compression of SWNTs embedded in agarose gel. This process results in a solution containing 70% metallic SWNTs and leaves a gel containing 95% semiconducting SWNTs. The diluted solutions separated by this method show various colors.[85][86] Moreover, SWNTs can be separated by the column chromatography method. Yield is 95% in semiconductor type SWNT and 90% in metallic type SWNT.[87]

In addition to separation of semiconducting and metallic SWNTs, it is possible to sort SWNTs by length, diameter, and chirality. The highest resolution length sorting, with length variation of <10%, has thus far been achieved by size exclusion chromatography (SEC) of DNA-dispersed carbon nanotubes (DNA-SWNT).[88] SWNT diameter separation has been achieved by density-gradient ultracentrifugation (DGU)[89] using surfactant-dispersed SWNTs and by ion-exchange chromatography (IEC) for DNA-SWNT.[90] Purification of individual chiralities has also been demonstrated with IEC of DNA-SWNT: specific short DNA oligomers can be used to isolate individual SWNT chiralities. Thus far, 12 chiralities have been isolated at purities ranging from 70% for (8,3) and (9,5) SWNTs to 90% for (6,5), (7,5) and (10,5)SWNTs.[91] There have been successful efforts to integrate these purified nanotubes into devices, e. g. FETs.[92]

An alternative to separation is development of a selective growth of semiconducting or metallic CNTs. Recently, a new CVD recipe that involves a combination of ethanol and methanol gases and quartz substrates resulting in horizontally aligned arrays of 95–98% semiconducting nanotubes was announced.[93]

Nanotubes are usually grown on nanoparticles of magnetic metal (Fe, Co), which facilitates production of electronic (spintronic) devices. In particular, control of current through a field-effect transistor by magnetic field has been demonstrated in such a single-tube nanostructure.[94]

Current applications

Current use and application of nanotubes has mostly been limited to the use of bulk nanotubes, which is a mass of rather unorganized fragments of nanotubes. Bulk nanotube materials may never achieve a tensile strength similar to that of individual tubes, but such composites may, nevertheless, yield strengths sufficient for many applications. Bulk carbon nanotubes have already been used as composite fibers in polymers to improve the mechanical, thermal and electrical properties of the bulk product.

  • Easton-Bell Sports, Inc. have been in partnership with Zyvex Performance Materials, using CNT technology in a number of their bicycle components—including flat and riser handlebars, cranks, forks, seatposts, stems and aero bars.
  • Zyvex Technologies has also built a 54' maritime vessel, the Piranha Unmanned Surface Vessel, as a technology demonstrator for what is possible using CNT technology. CNTs help improve the structural performance of the vessel, resulting in a lightweight 8,000 lb boat that can carry a payload of 15,000 lb over a range of 2,500 miles.[95]
  • Amroy Europe Oy manufactures Hybtonite carbon nanoepoxy resins where carbon nanotubes have been chemically activated to bond to epoxy, resulting in a composite material that is 20% to 30% stronger than other composite materials. It has been used for wind turbines, marine paints and variety of sports gear such as skis, ice hockey sticks, baseball bats, hunting arrows, and surfboards.[96]

Other current applications include:

  • tips for atomic force microscope probes[97]
  • in tissue engineering, carbon nanotubes can act as scaffolding for bone growth[98]

Potential applications

See also, for last current applications: Timeline of carbon nanotubes
The joining of two carbon nanotubes with different electrical properties to form a diode has been proposed . L Chico et al. Phys Rev Lett 76, 971 (1996)

The strength and flexibility of carbon nanotubes makes them of potential use in controlling other nanoscale structures, which suggests they will have an important role in nanotechnology engineering. The highest tensile strength of an individual multi-walled carbon nanotube has been tested to be is 63 GPa.[18] Carbon nanotubes were found in Damascus steel from the 17th century, possibly helping to account for the legendary strength of the swords made of it.[99][100]


Because of the carbon nanotube's superior mechanical properties, many structures have been proposed ranging from everyday items like clothes and sports gear to combat jackets and space elevators.[101] However, the space elevator will require further efforts in refining carbon nanotube technology, as the practical tensile strength of carbon nanotubes can still be greatly improved.[20]

For perspective, outstanding breakthroughs have already been made. Pioneering work led by Ray H. Baughman at the NanoTech Institute has shown that single and multi-walled nanotubes can produce materials with toughness unmatched in the man-made and natural worlds.[102][103]

Carbon nanotubes are also a promising material as building blocks in bio-mimetic hierarchical composite materials given their exceptional mechanical properties (~1TPa in modulus, and ~100 GPa in strength). Initial attempts to incorporate CNTs into hierarchical structures led to mechanical properties that were significantly lower than these achievable limits. Windle et al. have used an in situ chemical vapor deposition (CVD) spinning method to produce continuous CNT yarns from CVD grown CNT aerogels.[104][105][106] With this technology, they fabricated CNT yarns with strengths as high as ~9 GPa at small gage lengths of ~1 mm, however, defects resulted in a reduction of specific strength to ~1 GPa at 20 mm gage length.[106][107] Espinosa et al. developed high performance DWNT-polymer composite yarns by twisting and stretching ribbons of randomly oriented bundles of DWNTs thinly coated with polymeric organic compounds. These DWNT-polymer yarns exhibited unusually high energy to failure of ~100 J·g−1 (comparable to one of the toughest natural materials – spider silk[108]), and strength as high as ~1.4 GPa.[109] Effort is ongoing to produce CNT composites that incorporate tougher matrix materials, such as Kevlar, to further improve on the mechanical properties toward those of individual CNTs.

Because of the high mechanical strength of carbon nanotubes, research is being made into weaving them into clothes to create stab-proof and bulletproof clothing. The nanotubes would effectively stop the bullet from penetrating the body, although the bullet's kinetic energy would likely cause broken bones and internal bleeding.[110]

In electrical circuits

Nanotube-based transistors, also known as carbon nanotube field-effect transistors (CNFETs), have been made that operate at room temperature and that are capable of digital switching using a single electron.[111] However, one major obstacle to realization of nanotubes has been the lack of technology for mass production. In 2001 IBM researchers demonstrated how metallic nanotubes can be destroyed, leaving semiconducting ones behind for use as transistors. Their process is called "constructive destruction," which includes the automatic destruction of defective nanotubes on the wafer.[112] This process, however, only gives control over the electrical properties on a statistical scale.

The potential of carbon nanotubes was demonstrated in 2003 when room-temperature ballistic transistors with ohmic metal contacts and high-k gate dielectric were reported, showing 20–30x higher ON current than state-of-the-art Si MOSFETs. This presented an important advance in the field as CNT was shown to potentially outperform Si. At the time, a major challenge was ohmic metal contact formation. In this regard, palladium, which is a high-work function metal was shown to exhibit Schottky barrier-free contacts to semiconducting nanotubes with diameters >1.7 nm.[113][114]

The first nanotube integrated memory circuit was made in 2004. One of the main challenges has been regulating the conductivity of nanotubes. Depending on subtle surface features a nanotube may act as a plain conductor or as a semiconductor. A fully automated method has however been developed to remove non-semiconductor tubes.[115]

Another way to make carbon nanotube transistors has been to use random networks of them. By doing so one averages all of their electrical differences and one can produce devices in large scale at the wafer level.[116] This approach was first patented by Nanomix Inc.[117](date of original application June 2002[118] ). It was first published in the academic literature by the United States Naval Research Laboratory in 2003 through independent research work. This approach also enabled Nanomix to make the first transistor on a flexible and transparent substrate.[119][120]

Large structures of carbon nanotubes can be used for thermal management of electronic circuits. An approximately 1 mm–thick carbon nanotube layer was used as a special material to fabricate coolers, this materials has very low density, ~20 times lower weight than a similar copper structure, while the cooling properties are similar for the two materials.[121]

Overall, incorporating carbon nanotubes as transistors into logic-gate circuits with densities comparable to modern CMOS technology has not yet been demonstrated.

As electrical cables and wires

Wires for carrying electrical current may be fabricated from pure nanotubes and nanotube-polymer composites. Recently small wires have been fabricated with specific conductivity exceeding copper and aluminum[122][123]; these cables are the highest conductivity carbon nanotube and also highest conductivity non-metal cables.

As paper batteries

A paper battery is a battery engineered to use a paper-thin sheet of cellulose (which is the major constituent of regular paper, among other things) infused with aligned carbon nanotubes.[124] The nanotubes act as electrodes; allowing the storage devices to conduct electricity. The battery, which functions as both a lithium-ion battery and a supercapacitor, can provide a long, steady power output comparable to a conventional battery, as well as a supercapacitor’s quick burst of high energy—and while a conventional battery contains a number of separate components, the paper battery integrates all of the battery components in a single structure, making it more energy efficient.[citation needed]

Solar cells

Solar cells developed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology use a carbon nanotube complex, formed by a mixture of carbon nanotubes and carbon buckyballs (known as fullerenes) to form snake-like structures. Buckyballs trap electrons, although they can't make electrons flow. Add sunlight to excite the polymers, and the buckyballs will grab the electrons. Nanotubes, behaving like copper wires, will then be able to make the electrons or current flow.[125]


MIT Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems uses nanotubes to improve ultracapacitors. The activated charcoal used in conventional ultracapacitors has many small hollow spaces of various size, which create together a large surface to store electric charge. But as charge is quantized into elementary charges, i.e. electrons, and each such elementary charge needs a minimum space, a significant fraction of the electrode surface is not available for storage because the hollow spaces are not compatible with the charge's requirements. With a nanotube electrode the spaces may be tailored to size—few too large or too small—and consequently the capacity should be increased considerably.[126]


In the Kanzius cancer therapy, single-walled carbon nanotubes are inserted around cancerous cells, then excited with radio waves, which causes them to heat up and kill the surrounding cells.

Researchers at Rice University, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre and University of California, Riverside have shown that carbon nanotubes and their polymer nanocomposites are suitable scaffold materials for bone cell proliferation [127][128] and bone formation.[129][130]

Other applications

Aligned nanotubes are preferred for many applications.

Carbon nanotubes have been implemented in nanoelectromechanical systems, including mechanical memory elements (NRAM being developed by Nantero Inc.) and nanoscale electric motors (see Nanomotor or Nanotube nanomotor).

In May 2005, Nanomix Inc. placed on the market a hydrogen sensor that integrated carbon nanotubes on a silicon platform. Since then, Nanomix has been patenting many such sensor applications, such as in the field of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, glucose, DNA detection, etc.

Eikos Inc of Franklin, Massachusetts and Unidym Inc. of Silicon Valley, California are developing transparent, electrically conductive films of carbon nanotubes to replace indium tin oxide (ITO). Carbon nanotube films are substantially more mechanically robust than ITO films, making them ideal for high-reliability touchscreens and flexible displays. Printable water-based inks of carbon nanotubes are desired to enable the production of these films to replace ITO.[131] Nanotube films show promise for use in displays for computers, cell phones, PDAs, and ATMs.

A nanoradio, a radio receiver consisting of a single nanotube, was demonstrated in 2007. In 2008 it was shown that a sheet of nanotubes can operate as a loudspeaker if an alternating current is applied. The sound is not produced through vibration but thermoacoustically.[132]

A flywheel made of carbon nanotubes could be spun at extremely high velocity on a floating magnetic axis in a vacuum, and potentially store energy at a density approaching that of conventional fossil fuels. Since energy can be added to and removed from flywheels very efficiently in the form of electricity, this might offer a way of storing electricity, making the electrical grid more efficient and variable power suppliers (like wind turbines) more useful in meeting energy needs. The practicality of this depends heavily upon the cost of making massive, unbroken nanotube structures, and their failure rate under stress.

Carbon nanotube springs have the potential to indefinitely store elastic potential energy at ten times the density of lithium-ion batteries with flexible charge and discharge rates and extremely high cycling durability.

Ultra-short SWNTs (US-tubes) have been used as nanoscaled capsules for delivering MRI contrast agents in vivo.[133]

Nitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes may replace platinum catalysts used to reduce oxygen in fuel cells. A forest of vertically-aligned nanotubes can reduce oxygen in alkaline solution more effectively than platinum, which has been used in such applications since the 1960s. The nanotubes have the added benefit of not being subject to carbon monoxide poisoning.[134]


A 2006 editorial written by Marc Monthioux and Vladimir Kuznetsov in the journal Carbon described the interesting and often-misstated origin of the carbon nanotube. A large percentage of academic and popular literature attributes the discovery of hollow, nanometer-size tubes composed of graphitic carbon to Sumio Iijima of NEC in 1991.[135]

In 1952 L. V. Radushkevich and V. M. Lukyanovich published clear images of 50 nanometer diameter tubes made of carbon in the Soviet Journal of Physical Chemistry.[136] This discovery was largely unnoticed, as the article was published in the Russian language, and Western scientists' access to Soviet press was limited during the Cold War. It is likely that carbon nanotubes were produced before this date, but the invention of the transmission electron microscope (TEM) allowed direct visualization of these structures.

Carbon nanotubes have been produced and observed under a variety of conditions prior to 1991. A paper by Oberlin, Endo, and Koyama published in 1976 clearly showed hollow carbon fibers with nanometer-scale diameters using a vapor-growth technique.[137] Additionally, the authors show a TEM image of a nanotube consisting of a single wall of graphene. Later, Endo has referred to this image as a single-walled nanotube.[138]

In 1979, John Abrahamson presented evidence of carbon nanotubes at the 14th Biennial Conference of Carbon at Pennsylvania State University. The conference paper described carbon nanotubes as carbon fibers that were produced on carbon anodes during arc discharge. A characterization of these fibers was given as well as hypotheses for their growth in a nitrogen atmosphere at low pressures.[139]

In 1981, a group of Soviet scientists published the results of chemical and structural characterization of carbon nanoparticles produced by a thermocatalytical disproportionation of carbon monoxide. Using TEM images and XRD patterns, the authors suggested that their “carbon multi-layer tubular crystals” were formed by rolling graphene layers into cylinders. They speculated that by rolling graphene layers into a cylinder, many different arrangements of graphene hexagonal nets are possible. They suggested two possibilities of such arrangements: circular arrangement (armchair nanotube) and a spiral, helical arrangement (chiral tube).[140]

In 1987, Howard G. Tennett of Hyperion Catalysis was issued a U.S. patent for the production of "cylindrical discrete carbon fibrils" with a "constant diameter between about 3.5 and about 70 nanometers..., length 102 times the diameter, and an outer region of multiple essentially continuous layers of ordered carbon atoms and a distinct inner core...."[141]

Iijima's discovery of multi-walled carbon nanotubes in the insoluble material of arc-burned graphite rods in 1991[142] and Mintmire, Dunlap, and White's independent prediction that if single-walled carbon nanotubes could be made, then they would exhibit remarkable conducting properties [143] helped create the initial buzz that is now associated with carbon nanotubes. Nanotube research accelerated greatly following the independent discoveries[144][145] by Bethune at IBM[146] and Iijima at NEC of single-walled carbon nanotubes and methods to specifically produce them by adding transition-metal catalysts to the carbon in an arc discharge. The arc discharge technique was well-known to produce the famed Buckminster fullerene on a preparative scale,[147] and these results appeared to extend the run of accidental discoveries relating to fullerenes. The original observation of fullerenes in mass spectrometry was not anticipated,[148] and the first mass-production technique by Krätschmer and Huffman was used for several years before realizing that it produced fullerenes.[147]

The discovery of nanotubes remains a contentious issue. Many believe that Iijima's report in 1991 is of particular importance because it brought carbon nanotubes into the awareness of the scientific community as a whole.[135]

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