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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

wire. As he describes it, "This is a light pipe for electrons."

Smalley and other scientists have demonstrated in the lab the amount of current that can be pushed down one armchair tube: up to 20 microamps. Smalley believes that a cable of armchair tubes measuring one centimeter in diameter would have 1014 tubes in it. He calculates that centimeter-wide cable would conduct 10 terawatts of electricity. "It is just a huge, just incredible amount" of power, he says.

Spinning a Powerful Future

The only problem is, no one has been able to make such a cable. Yet.

But Smalley is hopeful. In his lab right now, he can spin a continuous fiber over a meter long-in fact, as many meters as he wants-of buckytubes. To make his fiber, he uses a method similar to that used in spinning Kevlar. But the fiber isn't composed solely, or even mostly, of the unique, highly conductive, armchair tubes. As a result, Smalley says current must hop from one tube to another, trillions of time, to traverse the fiber. The fiber's conductivity isn't very good, and that's putting it mildly.

Smalley predicts that if he and other scientists push hard in the next five years, an all-armchair tube nanowire will be produced. Considering that nanotubes were discovered only in 1991, his prediction may not be that far-fetched.

Even at his most optimistic, though, Smalley doesn't foresee the creation of nanowire hundreds of miles long. But the wire he hopes to make doesn't need to be all that long, he says.

To understand why, imagine that an electron is akin to a passenger on a train from Houston to Dallas, and the train and track it travels on is the equivalent of a buckytube. No one track goes all the way to Dallas, but trains on adjacent tracks will get the passenger to Dallas. Under normal circumstances, using copper as the train and track, the electron passenger would have to disembark and switch trains and tracks numerous times, possibly miss connections and have to wait, all of which would slow down the overall trip. An electron traveling along a buckytube, on the other hand, would simply disappear from one train and, in a blink, find itself traveling on another, at the same velocity. "This is what electrons and quantum particles really do in our universe," Smalley points out.

This phenomenon, which Smalley refers to as resonant quantum tunneling, would occur because the adjacent buckytube would be precisely identical atomically. As a result, the buckytubes seek out contact with each other, for tens of microns-which, in a nanoscale world, means 10,000 diameters of an armchair tube, and therefore plenty of opportunity for quantum tunneling by electrons.

Smalley's resonant quantum tunneling, like the power load limits of nanowire, is still theoretical. He freely admits that no one has verified the tunneling effect in even two adjacent tubes, let alone six or more in a fiber.

But if he or other scientists can pull it off, the implications are stunning for the grid.

A Reason to Re-String the Grid