Paul Cherukuri, et al.
April 14, 2016
Nanotubes assemble ! Rice introduces
Reconfigured Tesla coil aligns, electrifies materials from a
Scientists at Rice University have discovered that the strong
force field emitted by a Tesla coil causes carbon nanotubes to
self-assemble into long wires, a phenomenon they call
The team led by Rice chemist Paul Cherukuri reported its results
this week in ACS Nano.
Cherukuri sees this research as setting a clear path toward
scalable assembly of nanotubes from the bottom up.
The system works by remotely oscillating positive and negative
charges in each nanotube, causing them to chain together into long
wires. Cherukuri’s specially designed Tesla coil even generates a
tractor beam-like effect as nanotube wires are pulled toward the
coil over long distances.
Rice University chemist Paul Cherukuri, left, Texas A&M
graduate student Lindsey Bornhoeft, center, and Rice research
scientist Carter Kittrell show the power of Teslaphoresis, which
wirelessly lights their fluorescent tubes. Tests with a
customized Tesla coil revealed that nanotubes within the field
self-assemble into wires. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
This force-field effect on matter had never been observed on such
a large scale, Cherukuri said, and the phenomenon was unknown to
Nikola Tesla, who invented the coil in 1891 with the intention of
delivering wireless electrical energy.
“Electric fields have been used to move small objects, but only
over ultrashort distances,” Cherukuri said. “With Teslaphoresis,
we have the ability to massively scale up force fields to move
The researchers discovered that the phenomenon simultaneously
assembles and powers circuits that harvest energy from the field.
In one experiment, nanotubes assembled themselves into wires,
formed a circuit connecting two LEDs and then absorbed energy from
the Tesla coil’s field to light them.
Cherukuri realized a redesigned Tesla coil could create a powerful
force field at distances far greater than anyone imagined. His
team observed alignment and movement of the nanotubes several feet
away from the coil. “It is such a stunning thing to watch these
nanotubes come alive and stitch themselves into wires on the other
side of the room,” he said.
Nanotubes were a natural first test material, given their heritage
at Rice, where the HiPco production process was invented. But the
researchers envision many other nanomaterials can be assembled as
Lindsey Bornhoeft, the paper’s lead author and a biomedical
engineering graduate student at Texas A&M University, said the
directed force field from the bench-top coil at Rice is restricted
to just a few feet. To examine the effects on matter at greater
distances would require larger systems that are under development.
Cherukuri suggested patterned surfaces and multiple Tesla coil
systems could create more complex self-assembling circuits from
Cherukuri and his wife, Tonya, also a Rice alum and a co-author of
the paper, noted that their son Adam made some remarkable
observations while watching videos of the experiment. “I was
surprised that he noticed patterns in nanotube movements that I
didn’t see,” Cherukuri said. “I couldn’t make him an author on the
paper, but both he and his little brother John are acknowledged
for helpful discussions.”
Cherukuri knows the value of youthful observation – and
imagination – since he started designing Tesla coils as a teen. “I
would have never thought, as a 14-year-old kid building coils,
that it was going to be useful someday,” he said.
Cherukuri and his team self-funded the work, which he said made it
more meaningful for the group. “This was one of the most exciting
projects I’ve ever done, made even more so because it was an
all-volunteer group of passionate scientists and students. But
because Rice has this wonderful culture of unconventional wisdom,
we were able to make an amazing discovery that pushes the
frontiers of nanoscience.”
The teammates look forward to seeing where their research leads.
“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,” Bornhoeft
“There are so many applications where one could utilize strong
force fields to control the behavior of matter in both biological
and artificial systems,” Cherukuri said. “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
Co-authors are Rice senior Aida Castillo; Rice research scientists
Carter Kittrell, Dustin James and Bruce Brinson; Rice
Distinguished Faculty Fellow Bruce Johnson; Thomas Rybolt,
chemistry department head and the UC Foundation Professor at the
University of Tennessee-Chattanooga; and Preston Smalley of the
Second Baptist School in Houston, who worked on the project as a
summer intern at Rice. Cherukuri and Bornhoeft began the project
while both were at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (4), pp 4873–4881
Teslaphoresis of Carbon Nanotubes
Lindsey R. Bornhoeft, Aida C. Castillo, Preston R. Smalley,
Carter Kittrell, Dustin K. James, Bruce E. Brinson, Thomas R.
Rybolt, Bruce R. Johnson, Tonya K. Cherukuri, and Paul
This paper introduces Teslaphoresis, the directed motion and
self-assembly of matter by a Tesla coil, and studies this
electrokinetic phenomenon using single-walled carbon nanotubes
(CNTs). Conventional directed self-assembly of matter using
electric fields has been restricted to small scale structures, but
with Teslaphoresis, we exceed this limitation by using the Tesla
coil’s antenna to create a gradient high-voltage force field that
projects into free space. CNTs placed within the Teslaphoretic
(TEP) field polarize and self-assemble into wires that span from
the nanoscale to the macroscale, the longest thus far being 15 cm.
We show that the TEP field not only directs the self-assembly of
long nanotube wires at remote distances (>30 cm) but can also
wirelessly power nanotube-based LED circuits. Furthermore,
individualized CNTs self-organize to form long parallel arrays
with high fidelity alignment to the TEP field. Thus, Teslaphoresis
is effective for directed self-assembly from the bottom-up to the
Nanotubes assemble! Rice introduces
Carbon nanotubes in a dish assemble themselves into a nanowire
in seconds under the influence of a custom-built Tesla coil
created by scientists at Rice University.
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