Nanotubes, also known as carbon nanotubes or even buckytubes are groups of carbon atoms that are bound together in a shape that resembles a cylinder or simple tube; in essence, a very tiny, very strong, drinking straw. The nano part of their name is derived from their tiny size; according to Wikipedia, one nanotube has a diameter of about 1/50,000th the size of a human hair.
Carbon nanotubes exist in nature, but not generally in a form that is of much use; thus methods of creating them in the lab have been underway since the late 1980’s after new evidence of their unique properties came to light. Currently, they can be produced using arc-evaporation which is where current is passed through a two graphite electrodes while in a helium atmosphere. The graphite vaporizes, then condenses on the cathode, some of which is nanotubes.
The reason that there is so much talk about nanotubes is because they have several properties that scientists believe will result in products that until now were impossible to create.
Nanotubes, because of their strong bonds have more strength than any other known material. Thus material made of nanotubes would be more impervious to being torn or pulled apart than any other known material.
Nanotubes are also hard, harder than diamonds in fact, and thus objects made of them would be more resistant to damage or destruction than any other object ever known.
Also, it has been shown that if one nanotube is placed in another that is slightly larger, the one inside can be rotated with nearly zero friction, which opens the possibility of tiny motors that could operate with very little energy input.
Nanotubes also have electrical properties which allow them to be used as semiconductors, which are the basis of computer chips; and in some instances can even be made for use as superconductors, which might speed up computers.
Nanotubes also have special optical properties which have recently been in the news because they appear to allow for a “cloaking device” which means they can bend light in such a way as to make an object appear invisible.
And if all that isn’t enough, nanotubes are also good thermal conductors which means they can be used to cause heat to flow from one part of a machine to another, which opens the possibility for cooling electronic or other parts with much less effort and cost.
In addition, because of a natural property whereby nanotubes align themselves into rope, some scientists have speculated that they might be used as a ribbon for a proposed space elevator; an idea that has been tossed around for many years, but never seriously considered until the discovery of nanotubes.