In a way, nanotubes are nature’s smallest candles.
These tiny tubes are constructed from carbon atoms and they are so small that it takes about 100,000 laid side-by-side to span the width of a single human hair. In the last five years, scientists have discovered that some individual nanotubes are fluorescent. That is, they glow when they are bathed in light. Some glow brightly. Others glow dimly. Some glow in spots. Others glow all over.
Until now, this property has been largely academic. But researchers from the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE) have removed an obstacle that has restricted fluorescent nanotubes from a variety of medical applications, including anti-cancer treatments. In a paper published online in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on June 7, they describe a method that can successfully produce large batches of highly fluorescent nanotubes.
“Nanotubes have a number of characteristics that make them particularly suitable for use as contrast agents in cells and tissues,” says Tobias Hertel, the associate professor of physics who headed the research. “Now that we know how to separate out the brightest ones, I hope that researchers will begin considering ways to use them in clinical applications.”
The figure of merit for fluorescence is quantum efficiency: the ratio of the number of photons of light that a device emits to the number of photons it absorbs in the process. The VINSE team reports that they can produce populations containing trillions of nanotubes with a quantum efficiency of 1 percent, a factor of 100 better than previous ensemble measurements and close to the best quantum efficiencies reported for individual nanotubes.
The methods researchers use to produce nanotubes creates soot that contains a number of different types of nanotubes: metallic, semiconducting, double-walled, single-walled, etc. Of these, only the single-walled semiconducting nanotubes