Tubes in space

Carbon nanotubes form in space but use a metal-free chemistry until now unavailable to chemists on Earth. The discovery is a surprising outcome of laboratory experiments designed by Joseph Nuth at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues. They were hoping to understand how carbon atoms are recycled in stellar nurseries, the regions of space where stars and planets are born, but the finding could have applications in nanotechnology, as well as help explain some characteristics of supernovae.

Writing in the journal Astrophys J Lett, Nuth and colleagues explain how astrochemistry makes carbon nanotubes without requiring a metal catalyst. Nanotubes are produced, they say, when graphite dust particles are exposed to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases, conditions that exist in interstellar space.

The finding corroborates the discovery of graphite whiskers, bigger than nano nanotubes, in three meteorites. The meteoric discovery hinted at why some supernovae appear dimmer and farther away than they ought to be based on calculations using current models. Nuth’s approach is a variation of a well-established way to produce gasoline or other liquid fuels from coal. It’s known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, and researchers suspect that it could have produced at least some of the simple carbon-based compounds in the early solar system. Nuth proposes that the nanotubes yielded by such reactions could be the key to the recycling of the carbon that gets released when carbon-rich grains are destroyed by supernova explosions.

Stellar Nursery
A stellar nursery could be home to carbon nanotube factories (Credit: NASA,

The structure of the carbon nanotubes produced by Nuth and colleagues was determined by materials scientist Yuki Kimura, of Tohoku University, Japan, using transmission electron microscopy. He observed particles on which the original smooth graphite gradually morphed into an unstructured region and finally to an area rich in tangled hair-like masses. A closer look with an even more powerful microscope showed that these tendrils were in fact cup-stacked carbon nanotubes, resembling a stack of disposable drinking cups with the bottoms removed. If further testing indicates that the new method is suitable for materials-science applications, it could supplement, or even replace, the familiar way of making nanotubes, explains Kimura.

Researchers might also now evaluate whether graphite whiskers absorb light. A positive result would lend credence to the proposition that the presence of these molecules in space affects the observations of some supernovae.


Astrophys J Lett, 2010, 710, L98-L101

Nano X-ray tube

Material scientists, medical physicists, and cancer biologists will all benefit from the development by US researchers of a low-cost X-ray tube packed with sharp-tipped carbon nanotubes.

Technologists are improving X-ray machines all the time, the device that generates the X-rays by using a vacuum tube to smash high-speed electrons into a piece of metal gets smaller as new approaches to manufacturing are improved and new discoveries in the underlying science made. This allows improved X-ray image resolution, which means greater clarity and detail of X-ray pictures that get right inside the body and see deep inside seemingly solid material.

Now, a team of nanomaterial scientists at the University of North Carolina has revealed a new type of relatively inexpensive and small X-ray device to this year’s meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine in Anaheim, California. The new device will have applications in imaging human breast tissue with potentially unprecedented detail, as well as uses in biomedical research and materials science and engineering. Control that is not possible with conventional X-ray tubes could be made available to a whole range of users.

Otto Zhou, Sha Chang, and their colleagues at UNC have developed a cold X-ray tube to supplant the vacuum tube and the electron-producing hot tungsten filament. They use closely packed carbon nanotubes which emit electrons from their sharp tips when a voltage is applied. These electrons impact a metal target and produce a burst of X-rays.

Otto Zhou
Otto Zhou

The team has already used their nanotubes X-ray source to produce a micro-sized scanner for imaging the internal organs of small laboratory animals. One of the added advantages of the new approach to X-ray production is that the improved clarity avoids the blur caused by a small living creature’s rapid breathing and high heart rate. On conventional X-ray machines slow mechanical shutters are opened and closed to take X-ray snapshots timed to the breath but small animals breathe too quickly for this to work.

Chang and Zhou have demonstrated that their carbon nanotubes, which can be turned on and off instantaneously, are fairly easy to synch up to equipment that monitors small animal’s breathing or heart rate.

The same nanotube devices could improve human cancer imaging and treatment as well as providing more compact X-ray sources for engineering and materials applications that need to reveal internal structural details of small components.

Further reading

51st AAPM Annual Meeting, 28 July 2009

Otto Zhou Research Lab

Non-carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes rose to prominence on the back of the buckyball chemistry revolution in the 1990s and are now emerging from prototype applications across academic and industrial laboratories. They have potential in microelectronic circuits, novel sensor devices, special light conductors, and light-emitting nanotubes for display technology.

Indeed, applications as diverse as medical technology, for fibres with ultrahigh tensile strength, in hydrogen storage, for rechargeable batteries, in catalysis, and in nanotechnology are being developed. There are even applications for antifouling coatings for ships.

With this in mind, chemists in Germany who work with inorganic materials have now developed an approach to synthesising tin sulfide nanotubes which could expand the nanotube concept much further still and open up yet more avenues for applications. After all, carbon does not have a monopoly on nanotubes. Early in the development of tubular fullerene structures, inorganic chemists opted to make their nanotubes from metals and non-carbon atoms: tungsten sulfide, nickel chloride, vanadium sulfide, titanium sulfide, and indium sulfide. Many others have been produced.

Wolfgang Tremel and colleagues, Aswani Yella, Martin Panthoefer, Helen Annal Therese, Enrico Mugnaioli, Ute Kolb, of the Johannes Gutenberg-Universitaet in Mainz, Germany, have now developed a new process for the production of tin sulfide nanotubes, which they report in the Wiley journal Angewandte Chemie, the researchers found they could “grow” tin sulfide nanotubes from a drop of metal using a bismuth catalyst.

The team were faced with one of the fundamental problems of synthesising sulfidic nanotubes in that they require a high temperature to force the planar layers of material to bend and fuse into tubular structures. For tin sulfide, the situation is complicated still further by an unstable intermediate that is almost impossible to trap because it decomposes at a lower temperature.

The researchers used a different approach. First, they employed a vapour-liquid-solid (VLS) process, a technique borrowed from semiconductor scientists for producing nanowires as opposed to nanotubes. The process involved mixing bismuth metal powder with minute flakes of tin sulfide and heating this mixture in a tube furnace under a stream of the relatively unreactive noble gas argon. The product of the reaction forms a deposit at the cooler end of the tube.

The team explains that tiny droplets on the nanometre scale are form within the oven. These nanodroplets act as local points of contact for the tin so that the reactants become concentrated within the metal droplet and nanotubes can then grow from these seeds.

“In this process, the metal drop is obtained as a sphere at the end of the tube, and the nanotubes grow out of the sphere like a hair out of a follicle,” explains Tremel. “Catalysis by the metal droplet makes growth possible at low temperatures.”

The team has successfully grown nanotubes comprising multiple layers of tin sulfide with few defects. The nanotubes have diameters of between 30 and 40 nanometres and are 100 to 500 nm in length.

Tin sulfide nanotubes grow from droplets (Credit: Tremel et al/Wiley-VCH)

Angewandte Chemie, in press

Group of Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Tremel