Basic research is a big early winner, "because when you can get pure samples of nanotubes, you can learn so much more about them," Weisman said. "Secondly, some electronic applications become much simpler because the tube type determines the nanotube's band gap, a crucial electronic property." Biomedical applications may benefit by exploiting the optical properties of specific types of nanotubes.
In the Kono lab, metallic nanotubes rose to the top of the spinning vial while nearly all of the semiconducting nanotubes sank to the bottom. What surprised lead researchers Haroz and Rice was that nearly all of the metallic tubes were armchair SWNTs, the most desirable species for the manufacture of quantum nanowire. Zigzag and near-zigzag species, also considered metallic, would also sink out.
Armchair nanotubes are so-called because of their "U"-shaped end segments. Theoretically, armchairs are the most conductive nanotubes, letting electrons charge down the middle with nothing to slow them.
The composition of the gradient solution made a difference in the quality of the samples, Haroz said. "One of the surfactants we're using, sodium cholate, has a molecular structure that's similar to a nanotube -- basically hexagons put together," he said. "We think there's a match between the sodium cholate and the structure of nanotubes, and it binds just a little bit better to an armchair than it does to zigzags."
Hurdles remain in the path to quantum armchair nanowires that nanotechnology pioneer and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, Haroz' first mentor at Rice who died in 2005, felt would be a panacea for many of the world's problems. Fix the distribution of energy and solutions to other challenges clean water, food, environmental woes will fall into place, he believed.
"Step 1 of the armchair quantum nanowire project is, 'Can we get armchairs?' We've done that," said Haroz. "Now let's make macroscopic struc
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