Buckytubes have the following physical, chemical and mechanical properties that make them such an outstanding material:
• Electrical conductivity- the first polymer with truly metallic conductivity.
• Thermal conductivity - higher than diamond along the tube axis.
• Mechanical - the stiffest, strongest, and toughest fibre known.
• Chemistry of carbon - can be reacted and manipulated with the richness and flexibility of other carbon molecules. Carbon is the basis of most materials we use every day.
• Molecular perfection - essentially free of defects.
• Self-assembly – as noted above, strong van der Waals attraction leads to spontaneous roping of many nanotubes. Important in certain applications.
Depending on their precise structure, buckytubes can be either metallic conductors or semiconductors. The semiconducting tubes are of two types: one has a band gap of hundredths of an electron volt, while others have about a 1-eV band gap.
Ropes have been measured with a resistivity of 10-4 ohm-cm at 300 K [A. Thess et al., Science 273, 483 (1996)], making them the most conductive fibres known. Individual tubes have been observed to conduct electrons ballistically, that is, with no scattering, with coherence lengths of several microns [Tans, et al., Nature 393, 49 (1998)].
In addition, they can carry the highest current density of any known material, measured [B.Q. Wei, et al., Appl. Phys. Lett. 79 1172 (2001)] as high as 109 A/cm2, and Phaedon Avouris, the Director of IBM's Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, has suggested that it could be as high as 1013 A/cm2.
Prior to buckytubes, diamond was the best thermal conductor. Buckytubes have now been shown to have a thermal conductivity at least twice that of diamond [Hone J, Carbon Nanotube Topics in Applied Physics, 273 (2001)].
Since this property, like electrical conductivity, is highly anisotropic in buckytubes, a macroscopic crystal of buckytubes, close-packed and aligned, would have the unique property of feeling cold to the touch, like metal, on the sides with the tube ends exposed, but similar to wood on the other sides.
Buckytubes are the stiffest known fibre, with a measured Young's modulus of 1.4 TPa [M.-F. Yu et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 84, 5552 (2000)]. They have an expected elongation to failure of 20-30%, which combined with the stiffness, projects to a tensile strength well above 100 GPa (possibly higher), by far the highest known.
For comparison, the Young's modulus of high-strength steel is around 200 GPa, and its tensile strength is 1-2 GPa. Their toughness has been demonstrated in simulations and experiments to be remarkable for something so stiff; buckytubes can be doubled over, snapping back with no resulting defect [Yakobson]
Chemistry and Manipulation
Buckytubes are polymers of pure carbon, and thus possess all the richness of carbon chemistry. Carbon is by far the most chemically versatile of elements, permitting an infinite number of combinations and derivatives. Closed ends of buckytubes are like fullerenes, whose chemistry is well understood. Open ends have the chemistry of the edges of graphite, also well understood. The possibility of attaching to either end of a buckytube essentially any chemical, structure or surface creates an entirely new situation whereby these end-entities can communicate with one another via true metallic transport of electrons. This is unprecedented since never before have there existed molecules with metallic conductivity, and this opens up worlds of possibilities for technological applications.
Technology also exists for chemically modifying the sidewalls of buckytubes, both covalently, by attaching chemical groups to the sides with chemical bonds, and non-covalently. Examples of the latter are the use of either simple or chemical surfactants, to modify the surface energy of the buckytubes.
In addition, the ability to manipulate buckytubes with chemical precision enables, for example, their dispersion in solvents, making them compatible with plastic resins for composites, etc.