SINCE THEIR DISCOVERY IN 1991, slender molecules known as carbon nanotubes have entranced scientists. The tubes, an elongated form of carbon-60 molecules known as buckyballs, are extremely tough and can function either as conductors or as semiconductors. But growing the tubes in a form suited to electronics applications has proven extremely difficult.
Not anymore. Zhifeng Ren, a research associate professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Buffalo, has developed a process for growing usable nanotubes--each just a few billionths of a meter in diameter--at relatively low temperatures. Like other scientists, Ren uses lasers to evaporate chemicals and form a carbon residue. He broke new ground, however, when he combined acetylene and ammonia gases in a chemical-vapor deposition technique. Within a few minutes, his method can produce hundreds of millions of nanotubes, growing in neat rows, perpendicular to the surface of a glass panel.
Ren says the first application might be a new type of flat-panel display. The nanotubes could precisely deliver electrons to phosphor dots on a glass plate, causing them to glow and create a picture. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories are helping Ren test his tubes and find potential commercial partners.