Electromagnetism has fascinated and confused people for hundreds of years. It brought light to our nights, and allowed for the development of the world. It would look like magic to a person living 200 years ago and, to top all that, we now have a new trick up our sleeves: constructing structures at a distance.
Researchers from Rice University in Texas have used the strong electric field emitted by a redesigned Tesla coil to assemble carbon nanotubes (cylindrical carbon molecules) into long wires. The amazing process lines up the positive and negative charges of the nanotubes, forcing them to join up in chains. The researchers called this phenomenon Teslaphoresis.
“Electric fields have been used to move small objects, but only over ultrashort distances,” Paul Cherukuri, leader of the team of researchers, said in a statement. “With Teslaphoresis, we have the ability to massively scale up force fields to move matter remotely.”
The Tesla coil was designed by Nikola Tesla in 1891 as a way to transmit electrical energy without wires, and the researchers used this property in combination with Teslaphoresis to create self-assembly circuits. In one experiment, the nanotubes formed an electrical circuit with two LEDs, structured in a way that it could absorb the energy from the Tesla coil and use it to light up the LEDs.
“It is such a stunning thing to watch these nanotubes come alive and stitch themselves into wires on the other side of the room,” Cherukuri added. Their results are presented in a paper published in ACS Nano.
Lead author Lindsey Bornhoeft described that while nanotubes were used in this instance, Teslaphoresis could potentially be used for many different materials.
“These nanotube wires grow and act like nerves, and controlled assembly of nanomaterials from the bottom up may be used as a template for applications in regenerative medicine,” he said.
And the researchers also think there could be many more applications for these “force fields,” allowing for matter in both biological and artificial systems to be controlled.
“And even more exciting is how much fundamental physics and chemistry we are discovering as we move along. This really is just the first act in an amazing story,” said Cherukuri.