Carbon nanotubes are sometimes called "buckytubes" because their ends, when closed, take the form of soccer ball-shaped carbon-60 molecules known as buckminsterfullerines, or "buckyballs." The late Richard Smalley, who headed the Rice University laboratory where Liu was based before coming to Duke, shared a Nobel Prize for synthesizing buckyballs.
In addition to being especially tiny, those nanotubes offer other advantages -- including reduced heat output and higher frequency operation -- over current materials used to make miniaturized electronic components such as transistors, said Liu. "Operating at higher frequencies means they would be much better devices for wireless communications," he added.
But the April 2008 JACS report left one unresolved issue blocking use of such numerous, straight and well-aligned nanotubes as electronic components. Only some of the resulting nanotubes acted electronically as semiconductors. Others were the electronic equivalent of metals. To work in transistors, the nanotubes must all be semiconducting, Liu said.
In their new Nano Letters report, the researchers announced success at achieving virtually all-semiconductor growth conditions by making one modification. In their earlier work they had used the alcohol ethanol in the feeder gas to provide carbon atoms as building blocks for the growing nanotubes. In the new work they tried various ratios of two alcohols -- ethanol and methanol -- combined with two other gases they also used previously -- argon and hydrogen.
"We found that by using the right combination of the two alcohols with the argon and hydrogen we could grow exclusively semiconducting nanotubes," Liu said. "It was like operating a tuning knob." Chemically inert argon gas was used to provide a steady feed of the ethanol and methanol, with hydrogen to keep the coppe
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