A new type of wire could revolutionize the gadgets and appliances at the heart of modern life — and the first step might be closer to our bodies than we think.
By using tailored DNA strands to extract and purify a specific type of carbon nanotube, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have broken the first barrier toward making quantum wire — a type of cable that is much better at conducting electricity than the copper currently found in electronic devices.
Wires made from the so-called "armchair carbon nanotube" could conduct electricity 10 times better than copper, but at just a sixth of the weight, according to researcher predictions. These quantum wires are what team leader Ming Zheng calls "a dream of many scientists."
"To build armchair quantum wire, there are two major technical barriers," Zheng told InnovationNewsDaily. "The first one is to obtain armchair carbon nanotubes from a synthetic mixture. The second one is to use the purified armchair tubes as seeds [for] template mass production of the same tube structures."
"Our work demonstrates, for the first time, a way to remove the first barrier."
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The specially engineered single strands of DNA were designed to wrap themselves around armchair carbon nanotubes. That allowed the researchers to use standard chemistry lab techniques to separate the armchair variety from a clump of many different nanotubes.
Zheng cites the late Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate, as one of the biggest forces behind quantum wire. Smalley, who discovered a carbon-based molecule known as the buckyball, saw quantum wire as "a divine solution to humanity’s electrical power transmission problem," Zheng says.
Now that the NIST team has figured out how to obtain carbon nanotubes, the next step will be cloning them for mass production. Once they determine how to clone and ship quantum wires everywhere, they can begin replacing current electrical conductors in everything from cars to computers.
Zheng says that when scientists start examining and using armchair carbon nanotubes on a regular basis, they could also find other practical applications.
"Electron conduction in one dimension is expected to exhibit many fascinating new physical phenomena," Zheng said. "Availability of pure armchair carbon nanotubes should enable scientists to explore new solid-state physics in one dimension."