In many classic science-fiction stories, alien life is based on silicon--the substance at the core of modern electronics technology--rather than on carbon, the fundamental building block of earthly biology. Scientists have even speculated that they might someday create silicon life-forms. Instead the opposite is starting to happen: carbon is serving as the foundation for electronic devices--and in the process is breathing new life into the quest for inexpensive, flexible products that offer a broad range of capabilities.

These developments may surprise those of us who learned in high school that carbon, in its familiar incarnations of diamond and graphite, does not conduct electricity well. During the past 15 years, however, researchers have discovered new forms of carbon: very small structures comprising a few hundred to 1,000 atoms, through which electrons travel with ease. Of particular interest is the carbon nanotube, a molecule that resembles rolled-up chicken wire, only the "wire" is a sheet of carbon atoms that is 100 million times as small as the version used for chicken coops.