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"Tube-Essence" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Vanderbilt University engineers have discovered how to break carbon dioxide in air into carbon and oxygen, and then stitch the carbon together to make carbon nanotubes -- a valuable engineering material. What one researcher called "black gold," the tiniest carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel and more conductive than copper, and reducing their cost of production would be a boon for the manufacturing of tires and batteries.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Something in the air.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, new advances in science and engineering, from the National Science Foundation.

What is as -- oh, pop quiz -- What is as electrically conductive as copper and up to ten times as strong as steel, at one-sixth the weight?

(Sound effect: game show clock starts) Hmm, don't think I would have got this. (Sound effect: buzzer) (Sound effect: ding) Carbon nanotubes with small diameters. Who knew, right? Great stuff -- problem is -- they're very, eh, pricey. Which is why you don't see them in countless applications. That, and 'cause they're really tiny.

A team at Vanderbilt University has discovered the blueprint for making these valuable materials using carbon dioxide (Sound effect: sucking sound) sucked from the air! Mm-hm. And it's cheaper than any method out there.

Their process uses electrochemistry to pull apart carbon dioxide (Sound effect: cartoon pull and pop) into just carbon and oxygen. (Sound effect: pop pop) The carbon atoms are precisely (Sound effect: sewing machine) stitched together into new forms of matter. The nanotubes are super-materials with amazing properties but only if you can keep their diameters small enough when you make them.

The team found a way to tweak the electrochemistry (Sound effect: ratchet) to keep the tubes from getting too large.

The researchers believe cheap, small diameter nanotubes could "revolutionize the world," opening the door to build some of the most valuable materials out there from CO2 captured from the air.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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