Nikola Tesla conjured up all sorts of interesting experiments for his famed “Tesla Coils.” Today, however, their main use has been relegated largely to impressing visitors at science museums.
That is about to change. Researchers at Rice University have used Tesla coils to get carbon nanotubes to self-assemble into long chains, a phenomenon the scientists have dubbed “Teslaphoresis.” Controlled assembly of nanomaterials from the bottom up could be useful in applications including regenerative medicine where the nanotubes would act as nerves as well as fabricating electronic circuits without touching them.
You can see a pretty impressive video of this so-called Teslaphoresis in action below.
In research that is described in the journal ACS Nano, the researchers were able to get the nanotubes to self-assemble into long chains because the Tesla coil generates an electric field that causes the positive and negative charges in each nanotube to oscillate. This ability to remotely affect the charges in each nanotube over such a distance is one of the surprising developments of this research.
“Electric fields have been used to move small objects, but only over ultra-short distances,” said Paul Cherukuri, who led the research, in a press release. “With Teslaphoresis, we have the ability to massively scale up force fields to move matter remotely.”
The influence of the Tesla coils on the nanotubes doesn’t just get them to self assemble, but it can also power the circuits that the nanotubes form. In one experiment, which you can see demonstrated in the video, the researchers were able to get the nanotubes to form into wires that created a circuit between two LEDs, which were powered by the Tesla coil.
The Rice researchers have initially used carbon nanotubes in their experiments because of their abundance at the institution where the so-called HiPco process for mass producing them was first developed. However, the researchers contend that the Telephoresis process could work with a variety of nanomaterials.
No matter the material used, the key element is the Tesla coil. The researchers envision using much stronger coils that are able to generate far more powerful directed force fields. They are also considering using several Tesla coils in unison to create far more complex self-assembling circuits than the ones they have already produced.
Cherukuri added: “There are so many applications where one could utilize strong force fields to control the behavior of matter in both biological and artificial systems. 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.”
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.