BEARDEN: To begin with, why are you interested in nanotubes
and why are they so special?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well nanotubes and particularly
what I like to call bucky tube turn out to have just incredible
properties. And bucky tube is an extension of a bucky ball. So
imagine you have
a ball and you extend it out here and all along the sides there
are hexagons as part of the graphing sheet of graphite, like chicken
wire, just a single layer of it turned around and seamlessly put
together so you have a perfect tube. That object has incredible
properties. If you held it in your hands and you pulled on it,
you'd find it has the highest stiffness of any object you can
make out of anything. And if you pull it until it breaks, we expect
it would be the strongest of anything you will ever ever make.
But in addition,
the electrons that are holding this thing together, some of them
are free to move along the length of it, and if you do the bucky
tube just right, it is a metallic wire. It is effectively a light
pipe for electrons. It's small enough the electron is confined
in its quantum little way. There's really only one way it can
move down the tube. But it does that extremely efficiently. So
here in one object you've got the strongest, stiffest thing we
will probably ever make in the universe, made just out of carbon,
but it also conducts electricity and oh, by the way thermal conduction
along this is, is higher than diamond. The best you can ever be.
So it's just carbon. In a way it's a new polymer of carbon, I
like to think of it.
from nylon and Teflon, here's a new polymer and I'm convinced
we will find a way to make it in, in vast amounts at low cost.
Well it has very little environmental problem, it doesn't react
with oxygen until you heat it up to about 4-or-500 degrees centigrade
at least. I suspect we will be able to rewire the world with these
bucky tubes amongst many other things.
TOM BEARDEN: Replacing existing conductors?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Yeah in, in high voltage DC
and AC transmission lines that are draped around the country and
around the planet and move power from here to there. They're made
of aluminum, not copper - copper's a better conductor, but copper's
so heavy, that if you drape them between the towers it really
gets down too deep. And while these bucky tubes, if we made a
bucky cable, of just the right kind of tubes, so that there are
quantum wires, we expect it very well may have the electrical
conductivity of copper, could be better. But even if it's a little
bit worse, it would still be of stunning importance, because it's
only 1/6th the weight of copper, about half the weight of aluminum.
So the cable that's draped between the towers can be bigger in
diameter and more powerful.
be ... more power down existing power corridors. In fact, it may
be good enough and it's strong enough, that you only could have
the central cable draped there - most of these cables are just
bare cables in full, nearly a million volts voltage - you could
put an insulator around them and then a grounded sheath around
them and ... you would have no radiation, and so you get much
more power down existing corridors and it wouldn't be so unpleasant
to live by the power corridors. So that's one of the things that
bucky tubes may be able to do, just one.
are about the diameter of a DNA molecule. They're really tiny.
Only a billionth of a meter across. ... And since they conduct
electricity, but they're a new carbon polymer, pretty much anywhere
you know that electricity is involved, these bucky tubes may find
themselves there. For example, fuel cells, batteries, nanoelectrics,
detectors. Gadget sensors that detect things on a nanometer scale,
individual molecules but then communicate that information back
to the macroscopic world. The future applications of these may
be as vast as electricity.
TOM BEARDEN: How about using them to store hydrogen
for transportation purposes?
RICHARD SMALLEY: One of the beauties of bucky
tubes is that every carbon atom there is on the surface. In fact,
if you can get to the inside of the tube, there's a surface there
too. So, so if we could adjust the diameter of the bucky tubes,
tweak them so that hydrogen would be absorbed at near liquid densities
on the surface, there's a lot of surface there, and it's only
carbon, so it's fairly light. And so we have a periodic table.
It starts at hydrogen and goes well past uranium.
the atoms we have to build things with in the universe. Well,
as we go down the periodic table they get heavier and heavier
and heavier, so you'd like to have an answer for this material
X that we'll put in our gasoline tanks that absorbs hydrogen that
comes from the early part of the period table, where things are
light. Well carbon is number 6, so it's a good place to go looking
and we have plenty of carbon. We have natural gas, we have oil,
we have coal, and here in Houston, Texas, we've got a huge chemical
enterprise that manipulates carbon and puts them in perfect molecules
and sells them.
got a new perfect molecule for them to make. Bucky tubes. If we
can make them I'm, I'm confident we will in time find a way of
making them very low cost, with great perfection. Nice clean process.
That sounds like something you might be able to stick into a gas
tank. So if in fact it is permitted by the laws of physics, chemistry
that this universe is built with, if it's permitted that you could
manipulate carbon into a structure that would absorb hydrogen,
so hydrogen could be like our gasoline, we'll find it, and probably
it will be these tubes.
TOM BEARDEN: How big a challenge is it going
to be to find out if the laws of physics and nature allow that
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well, it's a big challenge.
But it's not like going to the moon. It's actually incredible
how much has been learned in the past century by physicists and
chemists about what makes atoms stick together and what you get
when they do stick together. In fact, in the case of carbon, with
hydrogen around, our current calculation tools ought to be able
to handle it pretty well. So I suspect within three to five years,
we'll know the answer. If the whole notion is to cast a net broadly
over all possibilities for this material X that goes in the gas
tanks, so we're going to cast it over a region where we're looking
at carbon structures, we'll cast it over a region where we're
looking at metals, we'll cast it over other things. Maybe we'll
forget a couple regions and we'll cast the net later. Cast the
net. Look at everything that's possible.
And then every
one of those possibilities calculate it, make examples, measure
it, see whether or not you can get to this incredible goal that
we all want which is a great hydrogen storage thing that will
fit in our gas tanks. In many of these cases, it'll turn out,
it's good, it just doesn't make it, and there's no way we can
change physics and chemistry to make it happen so alright, that's
gone and that's gone. Maybe out of this net there is one or two,
maybe three reasonable practical schemes.
And then you
have to make a prototype and then of course you've got to learn
how to make this stuff cheaply. You can't afford to spend more
than a couple hundred dollars for what goes in that gas tank.
You just can't. It might turn out there's nothing in the nets.
Well we can't change that. That's just the way the universe is,
but the push now is let's go cast the nets. Let's go see because
we really would like to have that answer. The good news is that
we actually have a couple answers that aren't that bad. One is
you just pressurize it in a tank. Pressurized gas tank and they
have done very well these days. That wouldn't be that bad. It
would probably mean our cars wouldn't quite look the same as they
do now. But it would work. And liquefying the hydrogen's not bad
either. We already have two answers, we don't really like them
that much, we'd like to have another one. So we're going to cast
the net broadly and see.
TOM BEARDEN: As we were discussing yesterday
though, some of this seems to depend on the idea that the government
can spend a lot of money and order up a breakthrough. Is that
RICHARD SMALLEY: Sure, you can spend a lot of
money and you can order up a breakthrough. And if it's possible
given the laws of the universe, that breakthrough just might happen.
It often happens that to have a breakthrough, you have to make
a advance that's really in many ways unpredictable. There's an
essential surprise aspect to scientific research, particularly
if it's a really hard thing that nobody's ever done before. Chances
are the idea you initially cook up to get it done, it's not going
to work. So you get in a lab and you start playing around and
you hit this brick wall, like you're really slowing down. You're
just say, well if I try harder, maybe it will happen. Usually
it doesn't work that way. Something off to the sides says, ah,
and you find this other angle. But you wouldn't realize that thing
to the side unless you were pushing, unless you put the effort
in it. And in all scientific research, and for that matter, engineering,
if you just keep on pushing on that one path that you originally
had, almost certainly you will fail. In all enterprises, you try
to keep yourself open. And keep from putting all of your resources
into one path, even when it's long since been clear that it's
not going to make it.
But here we
have a hydrogen storage issue, in the energy issue in general
and so many other technical issues we have clear drivers. We want
a result in this area, needs almost miraculous breakthroughs.
And you have to learn how to nurture this enterprise, I call it
the garden of science and engineering so that the miracles that
we need will pop out of the garden.
TOM BEARDEN: So you think the approach that the
government is taking now is a good one?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Yeah, I think it's quite reasonable.
And we should look at it, year by year, and see how it's going.
We would so love to have an answer for hydrogen storage that allows
us to keep driving the kind of cars we drive and have the same
experience when we go to a gas station. Three to five minutes
later we drive away. We're all happy. We have a cup of coffee
in our hand and 300 to 400 of miles energy in the back and I don't
know where the gas tank is. I'm not even sure what gas is. I don't
want to know about it. I just plug it in, I pay my money. We'll
we're so used to that wonderful thing of gasoline, and now that
we try to understand how we would use hydrogen, we begin to appreciate
with what poetry mother nature gave us gasoline. I mean it's got
hydrogen stuck in there, you know, it's two or three hydrogens
on every carbon atom.
of them hooked together so that it's a liquid. It will flow and
fill the tank. It's not so volatile it'll bubble away, but it's
volatile enough to vaporize in the engine of the car. A tremendous
energy density. Very convenient and here, about 150 years ago,
we found it flowing in out of the ground. Tremendous boom, that's
oil. And that's the world we're used to living in. That's what
powers, not only American society, but the entire worldwide economy.
We're looking for another answer. And probably hydrogen absorbed
on something is not going to be as good as gasoline. I mean how
you can beat it? It's all there in the little molecules snaking
around. When you burn it you get water and CO2. I mean how bad
could that be?
looking for another answer. And we know we can pressurize hydrogen
in a tank. It won't be that bad. It's not going to be like gasoline.
We can make it liquid hydrogen in a tank. It would be pretty good.
Particularly for trucks and airplanes. Probably would be great.
But for, in our motorbikes, in our little compact cars, we don't
really have enough room to put liquid hydrogen in there unless
we really get snazzy, maybe we all get snazzy. We'd love to have
a little tank, put a pipe in it and it fills up and it's just
like a gasoline. We may never get something that's like gasoline.
So we're going to try. See if it can be done. But if it turns
out the answer is no, we'll cry and we'll moan and so forth, but
then we'll go on and we'll change the way cars look and we'll
find some other answer. The real world, we have to live with the
reality of physics and chemistry.
TOM BEARDEN: In your view, is the storage issue
the most important challenge? The most difficult challenge or
is there something else that's also a challenge?
RICHARD SMALLEY: No, I don't think it's the most
important challenge since I know we already have two answers to
storage, which actually aren't as bad as most people think they
are. Pressurized hydrogen in a tank. And liquid hydrogen. No,
I believe the most important problem, having to do with hydrogen
and beyond the hydrogen issue is primary energy. Where are you
going to get the hydrogen from? Hydrogen is not a primary energy
source. It's an atom. Well the energy you get from hydrogen is
when you burn it from the oxygen in the air and you make water.
It's the heat of combustion that does that; where is that energy
going to come from? The primary energy supply?
Over the last
century, the primary energy supply that's fueled the world, made
us what we are today, this vast enterprise of humanity, is fossil
fuel - primarily oil. It was coal before that. Fascinating to
read the history of going from coal to oil. The whole story of
oil. It's the discovery really of modern economy. That's what
got us rich. ... We're incredibly rich compared to any previous
century. Well in this century that we're in now, if oil and gas
and coal remain the basis of energy prosperity, the basis of prosperity
in general, it's not going to be a very prosperous century. Because
right now, we have 6-and-a-half billion people on the planet of
which about only 1 billion are really consuming energy at a significant
rate. Those other 5-and-a-half billion people are going to, there's
no way to stop it. We don't want to stop it, consume energy. By
the middle of the century, at least a factor of two more energy
will be produced every day. Right now it's about 200 million barrels
of oil every day are burnt up one way or another. Either as oil
or as gas or as coal or other energy sources.
we're going to need at least 400. Where's that going to come from?
Well if it has to come from oil, and the way that we're used to
getting it, the low cost we're usually getting it, it's not by
any means certain there will be that oil there. In fact, we may
peak within the next couple of years or the next 10 years. By
mid-century we will have peaked, so where are the billions of
people on the planet going to have their primary energy coming
from? Where? Since that determines the cost of everything, where
is the economic prosperity of this planet going to come from in
the middle of the century. If
it's just fossil energy, I don't like that answer. I don't think
it's going to be enough. We're not going to be rich enough.
So I'm a chemist
and a physicist and the people like me, we're responsible for
coming up with an answer. Nuclear is a great answer. I wish we
had another one. The fact is that this planet is bathed in energy.
Every moment hitting the earth is 165,000 terawatts of power from
the sun. If we went off planet, there's all the energy that you
could ever imagine. If we found a way of harvesting that efficiently,
found a way of transporting over thousands of miles from western
deserts to our big cities, found a way of storing it -- because
the sun goes down, what are [we] going to do at nighttime?
I think the
best answer is locally. We could solve this problem. We could
have plenty of energy for every man, woman and child on the planet,
not just the ones that are here now, but 10, 12 billion if, if
we needed that. We could be rich again. But we can't do that without
essentially miraculous developments in the physical sciences and
engineering. Good news is that miracles do happen. I've been around
enough, for about 30 years in the physical science, I've seen
many of these miracles happen. Lasers, microelectronics. Moore's
Law just keeps on trucking. They're going to go for another 10,
20 years on this. If you'd asked them back in 1970, are you confident
you could have gotten even to 1990? No, they would have told you
three or four things, they haven't got a clue of they would have
done. But every couple of years, they keep on finding an answer.
That's a miracle. I was around when DNA was discovered. It was
figured out how to clone. I was around when light emitting diodes.
If you go driving down a street now and you look at the stoplight,
it doesn't look like the stoplights used to look. These are light
emitting diodes, incredible efficiency, strained super labs that
are doing these things. These miracles do happen and they come
out of what I call the garden of physical sciences and engineering.
For the last 30 years I've looked at these things.
The rate of
miracles happening is not going to be fast enough to get us to
where we need to be, to transform the world's energy in the way
that our, that I think we need to do. So I believe we have to,
to look at that garden of physical science and engineering. To
decide how big it really ought to be proportionate to what we're
asking it to come up with. And then very much, like in the current
hydrogen program, are you going to tell this garden, I want an
answer to the energy problem. I want it to be cheap, I want it
to be clean, I want it to be able to go around the planet and
keep on working for hundreds of years. Give it to me. People like
me in the garden say, you know, don't bother me I'm, I'm not interested
in doing this. I'd say, yeah, but if you were just working this
area, we'd really appreciate it. And so people come up with ideas
to do it, so you'll fund it and it won't work and so forth. You
get to keep on working. What sort of things do you plant in that
garden? How do you? How do you fertilize it? How do you water
it? How do you prune it? Do you have a monoculture in it? So it's
a good metaphor. Somehow out of that garden the answer has to
come and we've got 6-and-a-half billion people that need an answer.
It'll probably be about 10 billion by the middle of the century,
so I think we ought to build that garden a little bit bigger and
really cultivate it and aim not all it, but a good fraction of
it, at solving this energy problem. I believe it is the single
most important problem facing humanity today. Energy. How are
we going to across this when oil and gas and coal are no longer
BEARDEN: Talk about what you're doing in the garden.
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well, my life is very simple.
There's only one thing I care about, it's bucky tubes. Back 15,
16 years ago, far enough I don't even know exactly how far back
it was, in my laboratory
at Rice, we were lucky enough to be around when we discovered
that mother nature can self-assemble perfect soccer balls of carbon.
Bucky balls. And it turned out that not only was she assembling
perfect bucky balls, perfect soccer balls, 60 atoms in the little
sphere, but a whole new class of molecules that have that same
architectural motif of the geodesic dome. That's why we called
it bucky balls, after Richard Buckminster Fuller, the American
architect and visionary. Well, it turns out it's not just a soccer
ball you can make, you can make bigger balls. You can make oblong
balls, the Y-shaped things. You
can make, in fact, an infinite class of new materials made entirely
of carbon, made of a carbon network that's folded around on itself
with pentagons and heptagons. We'll love that whole new universe
of materials that we were lucky enough to discover for the first
time. The most interesting single one is the tube capped at the
end because that tube, if you held it in your hands, stiffest
darn thing you'll ever make in the universe. You can pull it,
break it at the highest breaking force of anything but what is
so special is that it is the best way of conducting electricity
down a single molecule that we have ever seen and this is hundreds
of years into the evolution of chemistry and physics. We understand
why atoms stick to each other. And so we got, we know what the
periodic table is.
We can think
of all possible ways of sticking atoms together and we can say,
well could you conduct electricity? How about you? How about you?
Well there's always going to be one thing that's best. I'm convinced
this is it. And it's made out of carbon which means we ought to
be able to make it cheaply. The polymer industry, polypropylene.
I used to work in the polypropylene business. It sold these days
for what 25 cents a pound of something like that. And every atom
in that polypropylene is in that polymer ... it's got molecular
perfection. And the reason it's so cheap, is you find a catalyst.
You develop a process that just makes it. You make it right the
first time, you don't have to make it again. You don't have to
correct your mistakes.
BEARDEN: And this is the special material that could
lead to many, many things.
RICHARD SMALLEY: Yeah, this structure is the
one that conducts electricity in a truly metallic way, but it's
small enough and has sufficient crystalline perfection that the
electron as it moves, moves as a coherent quantum wave down the
tube. And there's really only one way it can move down the tube.
So it's heading on down this tube. You can't kick it to the side
because this is it.
TOM BEARDEN: No room.
RICHARD SMALLEY: That's right. Now, if I had
another tube right next to it, it could disappear from this and
just wake up and the other tube going the same direction. Quantum
tunnel in-between the thing. Remember an electron is a quantum
particle. In fact, all particles are quantum particles, whichever
we're just used to seeing lots of them together where these coherent
weird quantum effects all average out, you don't see them manifest.
But in this bucky tube that little quantum electron particle can
only be there in this coherent wave packet. And that's its special
talent, being a life pipe for electrons. But still made out of
carbon. Another way of thinking of this, this is polymer carbon.
Just like in fact, this physical stuff is a polymer carbon. This
structure is a polymer pure carbon and we will learn how to make
it cheaply in vast amounts.
BEARDEN: How do you grow this?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well if, if this tube were closed
on both ends, it would be very difficult. So what we do is we
start from a piece of the tube, where the ends are opened and
we attach a catalyst at that end which is really just a blob of
metal, and we heat it up to about 500, 600 degrees centigrade
where that metal is just a molten blob and if the metal is iron
or nickel or something like that, actually that liquid metal is
a solvent for carbon. And so just like you grow a crystal of sugar
by dissolving sugar in water, making it saturated and put a little
seed and it grows, the sugar from the water goes to that sea crystal
and grows, so here the equivalent of water is the metal blob on
the end that's a molten blob and the sugar is in fact, the carbon.
You bring the carbon to it in the form of carbon monoxide or methane
or alcohol or something and it comes up to it, breaks apart on
the metal, the carbon dissolves into the metal, wanders around
looking for the best place to bind. If you've got this tube attached
to it, this will be the best place to bind it and off it goes.
Even though it's true that carbon would most like to form either
diamond or graphite, if it had the chance to get itself really
hooked together over vast macroscopic scales, on a nanometer scale,
this is the best thing it can do. So you trick it into thinking
the world's only a nanometer in size. You give it the example
of what to do, and it just goes off and makes that and don't let
it know about the macroscopic world for awhile.
TOM BEARDEN: And this may be the key to growing
this on an industrial scale?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Yes, yes. In fact, all bucky
tubes, now being made are made with something like this. There's
a metal blob at the end and the tube is growing off of that as
the feedstock migrates around, gets to find that tube. What we
need to do to make it really efficient, to make this stuff at
less than a dollar a pound, is to get an extremely efficient catalyst
so that in moderate conditions, this stuff spins right out, um,
and I'm confident we can do that.
TOM BEARDEN: How does it grow?
RICHARD SMALLEY: It grows straight out. In fact
this object, it's a pretty floppy looking thing, but the real
bucky tubes is the stiffest of all possible rods of this size.
And that comes from the fact that this network of carbons, if
you just straighten it out, that is the sheet that is stacked
one on top of another to make graphite. Called the graphing sheet.
Picked off one of those sheets in my hand and held it like this
and pulled on it, you'd find it as the stiffest of all sheets
that you can make out of anything in the universe. But of course,
it ultimately has its edges in three dimensions. What we found
here is a way of getting rid of those edges. They're wrapped around
seamlessly connected here.
So now that
this is effectively a soda straw on a nanometer scale, made of
the stiffest fabric in the universe, so when you go to bend a
soda straw, you know it's kind of stiff to begin with and it buckles
-- the reason it's stiff to begin with is you have to kind of
stretch that material of soda straw initially to bend it. Well,
imagine soda straws made of this stuff, made of the stiffest of
all fabrics. So as you go to bend this tube, you find it as the
stiffest of all possible things that you can make ... so from
that comes incredible mechanical properties and also, it is that
stiffness that enables this quantum coherent transport of the
electron, to actually work at room temperature in the real world
and not have the molecule flopping around and find a way where
the electron can localize at a bend. So the stiffness is a critical
part of the whole story.
TOM BEARDEN: So what's that?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well this is a model of a bucky
ball. There are 60 of these vertices around here and the real
bucky ball, each one of those vertices is a carbon atom. And the
carbon atoms are hooked to each other in the bucky ball exactly
as this pattern. You might recognize this pattern as the pattern
of seams on a soccer ball. Well the bucky ball is about a billion
times smaller than this but it really exists. It's perfect, molecularly
perfect. It's made these days, hundreds of pounds a day, each
one of those balls spins around randomly a billion times a second
and has a true vacuum system on the inside. This is the most symmetrical
molecule you can make in the universe.
But in many
ways these days we're much more intrigued in this sort of elongated
bucky ball which we lovingly call the bucky tube because it's
the same sort of structure as this, except it's now extended in
one direction. Now this is only fairly short, a little capsule.
But in reality, we're now making these hundreds of thousands of
times longer in this direction than their width. So that allows
it to couple to the macroscopic world. For reasons of strength
and for conducting electricity, thermal energy, along the length,
to use them as detectors and so forth, so it, in a sense, brings
nano to the real world. So this particular bucky tube, is in fact
an exact extension of that bucky ball. So there's a pentagon right
on the end. There's five other pentagons on the end, that gives
you six on the end caps. See this is the 5-5 tube. It is an armchair
And if I had
to guess for the electrical transmission cable 50 years from now,
what it's made of, it wouldn't be just any bucky tube. It would
be this one. Exactly this one. Because you want to have as many
of these conducting channels in every square inch. By that time
we'll be in the metric system, it'll be square centimeter of the
conduction cable. Each one of these tubes only gets to move one
electron at a time. So you want as many as possible. So it wants
to be as small as possible. If it gets much smaller than this,
the strain of curvature of this sheet becomes a problem.
here the diameter of a bucky ball, C60 which is what this diameter
is, it's okay and we have made these in large amounts already.
We know that mother nature's okay with that. We haven't made them
all purely just this tube so far. We must do that. And of course,
we have to find a practical industrial scale way of doing it,
not in pounds but in you know thousands and millions of tons at
a cost of we would hope no more than a couple of dollars a pound.
We'd like it to be like the cost of aluminum or cheaper. But I
think that that's in the cards, that that will be achieved. Because
after all, when you're dealing with carbon, with a catalytic process
to produce this material from actually cheap feed stocks, methane,
or carbon monoxide, both of which can be made if necessary from
coal, we've got plenty of carbon. We will have for centuries to
do things like this with them. Maybe we'll just take the carbon
out of the air and CO2 and put it back into these things again,
but that will take some energy. These tubes, which are being made
now in labs all over the world are grown using a catalyst, and
the catalyst doesn't attach to the tube that you've seen here.
It attached to the open tube.
that this end isn't here so you just had the open end of the tube
which you can see these dangling bonds. Instead of being attached
to these other carbs, suppose it's attached to a blob of iron
or nickel, not much bigger than the tube which is only about 100
atoms. And you heat it up to about 5-600 degrees centigrade, even
though that's well below the melting point of bulk iron or nickel,
for such a small little cluster, it's already molten. So it's
a little molten droplet at the end. It turns out that molten iron
and nickel and a few other transition metals are actually solvents
for carbon. Carbon actually dissolves in them just like sugar
dissolves in water. So you have a little blob of a molten liquid
here in which carbon dissolves. So carbon comes from methane,
carbon monoxide, methanol, it hits the surface, it's a catalyst
that rips apart those molecules. The hydrogens will go off as
C, the oxygen will go off as water and leave the carbon back here.
Poor old carbon can't make a gas phase molecule anymore. It's
stuck, but it's in this molten blob so it migrates around. Of
course, it has no idea what we have in mind for it to do. But
accidentally, it wanders up and it finds one of these carbons,
part of this network and makes a new hexagon and man, is it happy.
In fact, it's as happy as it can possibly be in this restricted
nanometer space and that's the trick. You can find a circumstance
in the physics and chemistry in the reactor, where the atoms,
for their own selfish things, want to do what you want them to
do, that's what chemistry's always been about, and in fact, industrial
processing. You look for schemes in big pots and so forth where
you put in your raw feedstock, put in energy if you need to. In
this case, you get energy out, and you get just the products you
want. Nothing else. Of course, in these days of green chemistry,
you want to do that without any solvents.
BEARDEN & SMALLEY IN THE LAB
SMALLEY: This apparatus makes nanotubes, we call it the
hipco apparatus. The reactor's really behind us way back over
there. And the product comes whistling along these tubes here
where we're taking the heat out of the gas. It's a heat exchanger,
where the incoming gas heats up as the outgoing gas is cooling
down. The product has blown through these tubes and finally comes
down along this tube and turns around and goes through one of
these collectors where there is a filter on the inside. And very
luckily for us, for this process, they filter out very cleanly
and also very luckily, they do not plug in the tubes. Even though
we run these tubes for months and months and months, we have never
cleaned them up. They kind of wad up and then they blow themselves
out so they're self-cleaning. Anyway, they collect in here, and
so we'll run until one of these is pretty well full and we've
got a five pounds or so pressure dropper across it and then we'll
switch the other collector and then at some later time, we take
a collector off line, we open it up and we carefully harvest the
material. The material, when we get it out, is a black fluffy
sort of stuff. It's inside this, this jar.
TOM BEARDEN: Kind of looks like charcoal.
RICHARD SMALLEY: Yeah, and all, it's the property
of nanothings. I mean you just can't see them. You can't really
see the nano beauty of these tubes. In fact, if we went to the
best optical microscope, when we looked at them and had them all
focused in and I said, come look at this. Still looks like junk
to me. You have to get to scanning electro microscope or transmission
electro microscope, or you're not really seeing what you see on
the screen with your eyes, is a computer generated image. The
image is generated by electrons going through the material and
making an image using the diffraction properties of electrons.
So it's a trick to allow you to think you're looking at it, at
least the direct examination. But then you will say, oh yeah,
now I see them. These beautiful ropes. So all this material, when
you really look at it, is one gigantic tangle of ropes of nanotubes.
They look all the same diameter. You never seen an end. They're
just all wadded together kind of like brillo in a Brillo pad or
whatever those wires are in brillo, except in these case, the
wires are only about 10 to 50 nanometers in width and go forever,
even there you're not seeing the individual tubes. Every one of
those brillo pad wires uh, contains hundreds of nanotubes.
TOM BEARDEN: So is it even possible to actually
ever see a nanotube?
RICHARD SMALLEY: If you mean by see that the
light that hits the nanotubes goes into your eye and you generate
an image on your retina that you say oh yeah, I see the tube,
I see the side,
I see the ends. No. You will never ever see it because the wavelength
of life that you can see with your eye, the smallest is, is blue
or violet which is 400 nanometers in wavelength. These things
are 1/400th of that.
TOM BEARDEN: So light is too gross a tool to
be able to see a nanotube.
RICHARD SMALLEY: Right. In fact, that's true
of the whole molecular and atomic world. It's part of the great
fascination of this that at the beginning of the 1900s, only then
were chemists who actually worked with this stuff, were they really
believing that there really were atoms? It was a convenient sort
of fiction to think about. But right around 1900 with J.J. Thompson
discovering the electron and the whole business about discovering
atoms and the structure, the belief in atoms went from being something
that people talked about just as a way of making sense of the
world, to something that believed that really exists. Then about
30 years ago, we found ways of directly imaging them with, not
with eyes, but like a blind person, images. Oh, I think there's
something there, this is atomic force or scanning tunneling microsity
where there's a little tip and you can image beautifully individual
atoms and tubes and so forth. So it since long stopped being a
debating issue whether they're atoms. We know the world is made
of atoms. We know exactly the kind of atoms that are available
in our universe to build with. Nanotechnology is the thought that
okay, let's head off and build things of really tremendous societal
and economic, practical significance, where we put the atoms just
where we want. And these bucky tubes are a great example of what
you could achieve if you could really do that.
TOM BEARDEN: That's terrific.
SMALLEY: The consistency you get depends on how the reactor
is operating and how tightly packed this material has been. You'll
see if you look in here, there's kind of some stringy parts. There
are times that we get extremely stringy material where there's
little threads that are actually bigger than cotton threads that
will go from centimeters. We're very interested in just what's
going on here. Are there tubes that actually go the whole length?
Did they get formed back in the reactor and the gas? Are they
formed on the sides of the reactor, this stuff that sticks and
it's not a gaseous product. The tubes that are not metallic are
direct band gap semiconductors. And the band gap is in the near
infrared. And what happens when the light absorbs and the semiconductors
produce an electron. So if you can configure it since the electron
will go one place, and the hole there's another place, you've
just harvested solar energy.
And so in
the solar energy game, when you're looking for terawatts of power
from the desert, it's got to separate electronics from holes.
Suppose you spun a continuous fiber which was made up of bucky
tubes all hitting in the same direction, but they're packed together
as close as possible, kind of like pipes in a hardware store.
And let's suppose that no one bucky tube is any longer than say
a 10th of a millimeter in length, a little bit like this. So it's
huge for a bucky tube that's hundreds of thousands of times longer
than its diameter, but it's hardly the distance from here to Dallas.
But they're right beside each tube or our other tubes. And if
we made them of exactly the same bucky tube, let's say the one
that's the same as the size of a bucky ball, an electron as it
heads it down one tube could just appear in the adjacent tube,
and just keep on going up by a process that's called resonate
quantum tunnel. Cause you see that particles in our universe don't
do what you think they do. At
this level, individual particulars are quantum. We may move from
here to there, they do it in a very weird way. It's as though
you were riding in this one train and right next to you is an
adjacent train and you kind of blink and you wake up in the adjacent
train and you're still going the same direction. That's the world
So here we
have in the bucky tube of quantum wire, electrons move along the
quantum wire, extremely efficiently, very hard to slow down or
stop, because the mechanisms to do that just don't exist. You
just can't deflect it to the side there is no side. You can only
bounce it back on itself and it's almost impossible to do that,
not quite, but it's hard. But how do we get it from here to Dallas?
We're going to have to take a lot of trains and the electron can
quantum tunnel to the adjacent train and keep on doing that. Without
any loss. So this is a wonderful story and those of us who learned
quantum mechanics, we love this notion. That quantum mechanics
is going to save the world and rewire the grid.
In fact, we
don't have this cable yet. We have the tubes. We know that the
quantum behavior of electrons going along, particularly the ones
in these tubes is just what I said. We have never made a fiber
where the electron hops from place to place. But we will make
that. We're going to make it. We're going to hold it in our hands
and we're going to attach little clips to it and we're going to
measure the resistance. And when we measure the resistance, it
won't just be theory, it will be God's reality. All the physical
phenomena that we know, plus all the ones we have yet to discover.
My guess is that the physical reality is that we'll have wonderful
electrical connectivity. It may very well be as good as copper.
If we can make it cheaply then we've got ourselves a new way of
moving electricity from here to there and could be a tremendous
these little race tracks fro the electrons going along, they really
only want to go along the wire in that direction. They don't want
to go any other direction. When you generate electricity, you
take a wire conductor and you move it through a magnetic field.
And that causes the electrons to flow along the wires. That's
what Faraday discovered and that's how our electric generators
run. On an electric generator, you have a lot of wire and you
spin it through a magnetic field. Well sometimes the wire is spinning
through the magnetic field in a direction that induces a current
that goes along the wire. Other times, the magnetic fields not
the right direction and it's inducing currents that don't go the
right direction. And these things are called eddy currents. And
they're parasitic. And so you lose power in there.
In my bucky
tube quantum wire, you won't have the eddy currents because the
electron isn't going that way. Even when it hops to adjacent tubes.
It's just blinking and waking up in the adjacent tube, still going
the same direction. So that could be terrific in generators. So
this one example of areas where these new nanotubes, particularly
the bucky tubes, where we can make them with molecular perfection
with high efficiency could have just a stunning impact. Electricity
is very important. Not just in the electrical wires, but you know
every little cell phone you hold, there's a lot of electricity
that goes in there. It's also shielded so that it's electromagnetic
influences don't talk to your neighbor's cell phone except the
way you want to and that the electrical noise from around you
doesn't perturb it. Right now though that, that shield is made
of metal. One of these days it'll be made of bucky tubes. In general,
over the last 50 years, we've been taking the metal out of stuff.
We've made a tremendous progress along that line. We're not done.
When we do get done, it'll be hard to find any metal in your automobile.
Not because we just like plastics, and they're cheap. We do like
plastics and they are cheap, but because you want a nanometer
scale or engineering the strength of properties you want, and
not just asking what mother nature gave you when you melted iron
and got steel. So bucky tubes are going to be involved wherever
electricity is involved and they're great strength at some point
will have a big effect as well.
As I mentioned,
the bucky tube, when you pull it, it's the stiffest of all things.
And if you keep pulling it until it breaks, you'll find that you
took more energy to do that. There's more force than any other
object we know of. So suppose, instead of I had a bucky fiber
where no tube is longer than a fraction of a millimeter, that
I really made them long. And I held this thing in my hand and
pulled back, 100 times stronger than steel is realistic. Suppose
we wound a hydrogen pressure tank with this new super fiber carbon.
This is the ultimate carbon fiber. At whatever pressure we're
used to using it will be far safer. It will be less weight. And
we ought to be able to go to higher pressures. I mean this thing
is so strong. We may never do this, but if you could do it, make
one long enough, you could build an elevator to space and hang
it essentially constant diameter, a fishing line from space that
hangs all the way down. For NASA's future in near earth satellites
and further out, we need super strong materials that are very
lightweight to make huge structures for solar energy collection,
for large aperture antennas, for collection of solar energy, far
out in space. We need bucky tubes there and we're confident that
they will be there.
TOM BEARDEN: What are you doing in your lab to
get to the point where you can spin that cable that you talk about?
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well the principle focus in
my lab right now is to learn how to grow bucky tubes from a short
little seed. A little piece of bucky tube that had been made someplace
else but only maybe 10 times bigger than its diameter, open at
the ends, put a catalyst at the end which really is not much more
than a blob of iron or nickel, but just a little tiny blob and
only, only a nanometer across. Heat it up. Expose it to methane
or carbon monoxide, some cheap gas and grow. And the tube that
grows is exactly, exactly the clone of that initial seed. It's
the seeded growth. If we can do that, when we pick the right seed,
we've determined what we've made.
already nucleated it. We ought to be able to grow it under moderate
conditions. And that's beginning to sound like a chemical process,
resembles the sort of thing that's done in the polymer industry
anyway. This would be called a living polymerization. And if you
can determine exactly what that seed is, then you have total control.
There's not one bucky tube, there's hundreds of them. As they
range in size from a little fraction of one nanometer, diameter
of a bucky ball, to about 3 or 4 times that diameter. And in there
there's oh, hundreds of different ways of doing it and the way
the hexagons go around. Some of them are these things that are
called the armchair tubes that have this tremendous metallic conduction.
Others are direct band gaps semiconductors. Others are semi-metals
with a little gap down in the microwave region that would be very
interesting for electromagnetic antennas and devices. To really
make bucky tubes be all they can be, we've got to be able to control
them. Precisely, where every atom is. That is the essence of the
chemical industry. That's what they do. They put atoms just where
they want and they find cheaper and cleaner ways to do it so that,
so that they can make money and people can be prosperous.
of bucky tubes is to get control. So that is our principle focus
here. We have other focuses and we're working on growing a continuous
crystal nanotube so that they will be literally centimeters in
length. One of these days, we, or somebody else is going to do
this. I'm convinced it's, it's just a matter of time. And one
of these days you're going to hold it in your hand. It won't have
gold around it. But it'll be black probably a little shiny, it'll
feel like wood or plastic to your hands. But if you touch the
end, it will feel cold like metal. The reason the metal feels
cold is because it's a great thermal conductor, and it conducts
the heat away from your finger. So you feel the cold. Well this
thermal conductor, from here to here, will be better than anything
we've ever made. Better than diamond. So not only will it feel
cold to me here, but I'll feel it, my other fingers on the other
side. It'll be a new material of bucky tube single crystal. I'm
sure that can be done. And in fact, we may find that you can actually
grow it practically in large amounts. So these are really super
materials of a new sort. It's fundamentally nano. In a way it's
an extension of previous uh, research and polymers and organic
chemistry but it's wild because of the electrical properties of
the tubes, the thermal properties. These are things we normally
associate, only with great metals and incredible mechanical strengths
that we're almost certain will be unmatched forever.
TOM BEARDEN: If all this works out as you hope,
it sounds like you have the magic bullet for the electrical challenges
of the 21st century.
RICHARD SMALLEY: Well it if it works out as,
as I have imagined, it would be magnificent. It isn't the answer
to everything. It isn't an answer to the primary energy challenge.
I mean it's just a way of getting energy from here to there or
manipulating it and storing it perhaps. Where are you going to
get the primary energy? The best answer is the sun. ... But to
solve the world's energy problems, with sunlight alone, as the
dawn of the energy source, we need miracles. There's plenty of
light. Plenty. And you could solve the entire world's energy problem
with just six solar energy plots smaller than a fraction of Arizona,
and put them out in the western deserts and if you look around
the planet, we've got a lot of deserts where there is nothing
going on. Light's coming down there, it's just heating up the
If we discovered
cheap -- it has to be very cheap, like cheapest paint, photoable
tag, or photo catalytic scheme -- we could cover square miles
of this and lasts for decades and converts that sunlight with
about 20 percent efficiency. You need pretty high efficiency into
some useful stored energy, either directly electric current or
hydrogen or methanol. Hey if you want the best gasoline, I would
love to have gasoline, take CO2 out of the air, if you could do
that, you could solve the world's energy problem. And the energy
problem is not infinite. The population of the planet is still
increasing, but the good news is the fertility rates are dropping
pretty much around the world. If this drop of fertility rates
continues, we may very well see world population peak before 2050.
Maybe as low as 7 to 8 billion people. Or perhaps it'll go to
10 to 12.
around here, we're going to peak out if what has happened in the
past continues to happen, that is as companies, countries develop,
their fertility rates drop more to replacement level. It's happened
in most of the developed world already. Then we have about roughly
10 billion people on the planet. And the average person does not
need infinite energy. Two kilowatts, 5, would be more than we
need. Two kilowatts, 10 billion people, 20 terawatts of power.
Give it to me. Give it to me cheap, we've solved the problem.
Just solved it. We could do that easily with just six places and
deserts around, around the planet. Except we can't do it with
what we've got now. We can't do it with anything we can extrapolate
from what we've got now. It's not extrapolating ever going to
get to be ask cheap as oil.
do happen. And I believe we ought to get on with it. It might
turn out that the way, that the universe was built, you can't
ever beat oil. We've had our great century and then for centuries
in the future, there's never any answer that's better. I don't
think that's likely, but we're acting as though we can never beat
oil. We've got oil, we're going to get more out of the ground,
we'll settle with what we've got and if we need any extra energy,
we'll get it from nuclear and where else, I don't know. We'll
burn trees. Actually it's not bad to do it with trees. I'd like
a new answer. I want to get rich again. We used to always used
to say for decades after the Apollo, well if we can go to the
moon, we can do this. Well this is another one. The boldness,
the tactical boldness of going to the moon, that same technical
boldness still lives in us and that could get us out to energy
prosperity in the future if we really got serious about it.
BEARDEN: What's the problem with storing sufficient amounts
of hydrogen on a nanotube or nanostructure?
RICHARD SMALLEY: The hydrogen storage problem,
uh, challenge is, is huge. We're looking for an experience in
our cares that's like our current experience, so we can't have
a huge volume. We can't take up for the whole back of the car
just to store the hydrogen. We need to have the hydrogen molecules
closer to each other. Well even if we made it liquid hydrogen,
about as close as they can get, it's still going to be substantially
larger volume than gasoline tank. But liquid hydrogen doesn't
exist unless you're 20 degrees above absolute 0 and that, so you've
got the tank that does that and all the infrastructure. And even
that would be kind of bulky. So what we're looking for is something
that they hydrogen molecules will love to sidle up against at
near liquid densities, but something that we can go into the gas
station, connect up and three minutes later we've gone, you know
equivalent of 20 gallons of gas, or maybe they're more efficient
vehicles and they're 10 gallons of gas, but something like that.
So now not
only do I have to have the hydrogen molecules in this tank, I
have to have something else. It's going to take up volume, it's
going to take weight. So it better be that every atom of this
new stuff is useful in getting the hydrogen close to it. Well
our central problem is that we know how hydrogen absorbs on surfaces.
It's weak called phsiabsorption And then if you break the hydrogen
atoms, there's two hydrogen atoms stuck to each other in a hydrogen
molecule. You break them apart and you independently stick them
on the surface, and you get chemical bonds there. It's called
chemisorptions. And that's pretty strong. Turns out that what
we need for this material X in the gasoline tank is about halfway
between what mother nature gives us in physiabsorption and what
mother nature gives in chemisorptions. Chemisorption's too strong.
Get it on, you can't get it off. That's what happens in gasoline.
You get it on, but okay, we'll just burn the whole stuff and we'll
burn the carbon.
Boy, we get
a lot of energy when we burn the carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide's
great, soda water, probably got too much of it in the atmosphere
right now and we're going to have to worry about it in the future,
but carbon dioxide's good for you, so gasoline is a case where
the hydrogen is attached to the carbon. That's chemisorptions.
Physiabsorption, just not good enough. You'd have to go to a very
high pressures. You might as well just go to a pressurized hydrogen
tank and forget about putting anything in there. There's nothing
cheaper than nothing.
the challenge of finding material X for the gasoline tank, to
store hydrogen like we used to for gasoline, is to find a way
of adapting that surface so that it binds the hydrogen, somewhere
between physiabsorption and chemisorptions. Now the optimism is
that in a bucky tube, the binding energy of hydrogen to the surface
depends on the diameter of the tube. So if it's infinitely large
in diameter, the sheet is flat, very hard to buy the carbon now.
Plus the tube is an electrical conductor. We can charge it up.
We can put other atoms in there. We can put borons, we can put
metal atoms in there, maybe there's a way of tweaking it to make
very strong physiabsorption or very weak chemisorptions. So that's
the the best business case that we have at the moment for this.
Whether or not in fact there is any real answer, which really
works the way we need it, it's something we're only going to find
once we get into it. If there is, we still have to make it and
it has to be really cheap.
for DOE's 2010 goal, for this material is I believe $8 per kilogram
of stored hydrogen, which means the material itself is going to
have to be like a dollar a pound. The price of bucky tubes right
now in the research market is hundreds of thousands of dollars
a pound. When bucky tubes come into the commercial market, which
I suspect they will within a year or two, it's not going to be
much cheaper than a couple hundred dollars a pound. Hundreds of
dollars a pound. I can't be the bucky tubes we have right now
because we know they're not good enough. It has to be some special
thing. We're going to have to learn how to make it like a bulk
polymer like propylene. So the price has to come down by two as
a magnitude, at least, more like 3 factor a thousand. There are
miracles to be had down there. Still, what we're working on here,
this growth from the seeds, I think it's quite conceivable we
could do that. It's made out of carbon. Carbon is cheap. We've
got coal, even if we run out of natural gas. We can make gasses
from coal. We know how to do that and we could with a good catalyst,
reasonable process, thinking boys and girls, make the stuff and
make the stuff work, we can find a process to make this cheaper.
But that's the challenge. That material X. There is no material
X you can buy in the stores now that works. If it's going to be
a couple dollars a pound, you've got a couple revolutions to get
to the point to gather material in.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you think the DOE's goals are
RICHARD SMALLEY: I think they're the right goals,
put the flag out there and get us moving. And to get there will
be a surprise. But nonetheless we so need an answer. If we put
that goal too far in the future and we don't set it high enough,
it's not going to inspire the sort of level of thinking that I
just told you about the challenge. Scientists and engineers, God
love them, they get a particular idea in their mind and they want
to solve it, and they want to, leave them alone, they want to
play. So it's like herding cats. And to get a big thing like this
down, out of the garden of physical science and engineering, you've
got to set a goal and get serious people thinking about it and
then there's a good chance we can do it. But otherwise I don't
think anything, grand thing we ever tried to do in the history
of this country, that's technical in nature needed a driver like