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Energy Tech's Quantum Leap

Tomorrow's utility technology may be revolutionized at the molecular level.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2003

of atoms and composition. If you change it very much, it doesn't work as well."

Recall that just a few years ago high-temperature superconductors were the stuff of science fiction, along with cold fusion and the space elevator. While nanotechnology doesn't offer much in terms of cold fusion (or does it?), it just might revolutionize the world's energy industries in the 21st century-beginning today.

A Tiny Wire Into A Big Future

Carbon as a conductor? Engineers normally wouldn't consider it a candidate. Indeed, graphite, a common form of carbon, conducts electricity roughly 10100 times worse than copper. But Dr. Richard Smalley, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, believes his discovery of carbon-60 will eventually lead to carbon wires that can conduct electricity without meaningful resistance-and weigh less than half of traditional metal conductors.

If he can figure out how to spin a long wire composed of a particular type of the carbon nanotube he now produces, Smalley could have an impact on the electricity business that would be profound, to put it mildly.

A Light Pipe for Electrons

In essence, what Smalley hopes to do is spin a wire composed of a particular type of buckytube. A buckytube, which is a single carbon atom with a long, cylindrical shape, comes by its odd name from Smalley's initial discovery of carbon-60, which under a scanning tunneling microscope looks like the geodesic dome invented by Richard Buckminster Fuller. Smalley called this new carbon atom a buckyball, in honor of Fuller.

Both buckyballs and buckytubes are one nanometer wide-a billionth of a meter. That's just a little smaller than the diameter of a DNA double helix strand. What Smalley and others have discovered is that size really does matter; as physical materials approach a few nanometers in width, they start to behave very differently than they do in their larger, typical forms.

For example, carbon is normally a terrible conductor of electricity. But in nanoscale, that truism changes radically. "These little carbon tubes have an unparalleled ability to conduct electricity," Smalley says. "Plus, they have this really tricky, sexy aspect that normal mechanisms of resistance are just gone." He says electrons traveling down an armchair tube, a particular type and shape of buckytube, have only one way they can proceed, and those electrons encounter almost no mechanisms of resistance.

In contrast, copper and aluminum, two of the more common electrical conductors, do produce resistance. Electrons travel a few nanometers along copper or aluminum wire, meet the end of their path, and consequently "get kicked," as Smalley puts it, to the next available pathway. Of course, this deflection causes energy loss, thereby producing vibrations, i.e., heat. So the electrons traveling along a typical conducting material lose momentum to heat.

In an armchair buckytube, Smalley says, deflection is gone-the only thing electrons can do is move along the path of the tube. While not a superconductor, a strand of armchair tube wire would lack most types of resistance seen in metal conductors. Smalley calls this wire, which only exists in theory right now, a quantum