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July 8th, 2007

Junior R&D

Philip Streich stared at the data for three weeks, but nothing made sense. Last summer he and his mentor, James Hamilton, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, were trying to figure out how to dissolve carbon nanotubes, the tiny, superstrong supermaterial of the future. Then a lightbulb--no, a laser--came on.

Scientists have assumed for years that nanotubes were insoluble. If they were soluble, it would be easy to arrange them without clumping and losing their ultrastrong properties. Boeing (nyse: BA - news - people ), for one, would love to pour nanotubes into a mold to make an ultralight spaceship, or a bridge to the moon. Streich saw how. He read about a phenomenon called Debye light scattering, which permits the measuring of solubility from the intensity of light scattered by the solution.

Pouring nanotubes into a solution of N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone-, he shot the container with a laser beam, then counted the photons bouncing out with a spectrometer. No commercial instruments were sensitive enough for the task, so he built his own, using spare parts from the lab's reserves. The tests revealed the level at which nanotubes can be dissolved in liquid.


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