Tesla coil zaps nanotubes into a self-assembling circuit

Next stop: self-assembly at a macro scale.

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Carbon nanotubes have gotten fanfare for rebooting Moore's Law and possibly powering the next generation of space probes, but that's not all the versatile material can do. How about shocking nanotubes with an electricity gun until they line up into neat little rows? Scientists at Rice University are firing a force field from a tesla coil at piles of carbon nanotubes until they self-assemble in a process called "Teslaphoresis".

The force field oscillates positive and negative charges in each nanotube until they line up. These chains of nanotubes can form a structure and even carry a current. They light up LEDs, which are wirelessly powered by energy absorbed from the tesla coil's force field.

"Normally when you talk about building circuits, you have to have physical contact. Now they're talking about building circuits without actually touching them," says Rice University scientist Carter Kattrell in a video.

Pointing your lightning beam at carbon nanotubes to do your bidding is cool, but rearranging them has possibilities beyond just lighting up your Christmas tree. Depending on how they're configured, they can make a material that is stronger and lighter than kevlar or make the blackest fabric known to man.

Self-assembly via electric fields isn't new, but it's only been done at extremely short ranges. The Rice scientists saw Teslaphoresis line up nanotubes from several feet away, and believe the process could chain them from the bottom-up into macro structures.

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