Try to imagine a substance stronger than steel but smaller than a speck of dust. Hard to do? According to researchers at UNC-CH, a microscopic material is proving to be more flexible and stronger than any other substance known to scientists.

The material, called carbon nanotubes, was first discovered by Japanese scientist Sumio Iijima. It’s actually a form of soot, created by arcing electricity between two sticks of carbon.

In some ways the nanotubes are similar to carbon fibers found in graphite tennis rackets. The nanotubes, however, are a lot smaller and fit together better. Nanotubes are simply a “nicer and neater structure,” says Michael R. Falvo, a doctoral student involved in the research.

What Carolina researchers have discovered is that the nanotubes have an incredible capacity to bend, and then bend again. After repeated attempts at bending and restoring the tubes, they found the tubes as strong as ever.

To test the nanotubes, scientists use a microscope called the nanoManipulator, developed at UNC-CH, which can be used for any experiment that requires measurement of forces. The nanoManipulator works much like a virtual-reality game. As scientists bend molecule-sized particles with a probe, they can view and feel a million-times-bigger representation of the object.

In the future, nanotubes could be used to improve high-performance sports equipment or even electronic devices. The technology is still in the research stage, Falvo says, but “the idea is exciting because carbon nanotubes could create materials that far exceed anything we have now.”

Catherine House was formerly a staff contributor for Endeavors.

Richard Superfine, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, directs the research. Other researchers include Russell M. Taylor (computer science), Frederick J. Brooks, Jr. (computer science), doctoral student Greg Clary (computer science), Sean Washburn (physics and astronomy), and Vernon Chi, director of the microelectronics research lab. Results were first published in the October 9, 1997 issue of Nature.