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See-through ribbons are stronger than steel and much more versatile

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Imagine rolling your TV up and putting in your backpack to take with you somewhere. Or pressing a button on a snowy day and having all the snow melt quickly from your windows.

These possibilities may become real before long, thanks to a bunch of long, bendy molecules called "carbon nanotubes."

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Scientists have now figured out a way to make super-strong, transparent ribbons and sheets out of carbon nanotubes. Using electricity, the researchers can make the sheets do things like give off heat, even light up, so they have many ideas for how to put these sheets to work.

Electrically heated windows and flexible television screens are just the beginning. The researchers are also imagining super-light air vehicles, lamp-like devices that don't need a light bulb, or even a strong sail that could be propelled into space by sunlight.

Carbon nanotubes are long, curled-up sheets of carbon atoms. Ever since they were discovered, scientists have been amazed at how strong, flexible, and versatile these wire-like molecules are. But, molecules by themselves aren't that useful.

In the past, when researchers have tried to put lots of nanotubes together into an object that you could actually see with the naked eye, the final product didn't have quite the same remarkable properties, such as the steely strength, as the individual molecules.

Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Mei Zhang of the University of Texas at Dallas and his colleagues have been working on ways to create larger objects out of carbon nanotubes. First they found a way to make carbon atoms assemble into patches of nanotubes molecules, so that the nanotubes grew vertically, like trees in a forest.

Now, in the 19 August issue of the journal Science, the researchers show how to start with a nanotube forest and turn it into a nanotube sheet. They gently attach a sticky strip of tape to one side of the forest and tease the nanotubes out, drawing them into a long ribbon, or sheet. The researchers also show that they can make the nanotube sheets conduct electricity and also emit light or heat in response to an electrical voltage.