Scientists have manufactured the longest fibers yet out of tiny strawlike carbon nanotubes. The recording-breaking rope, which can by made any length, far surpasses the previous best of 20 centimeters.

Alan H. Windle and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge developed a novel method of making nanotube fibers that is similar to spooling yarn out of a ball of wool. Using ethanol as a source of carbon, the researchers reacted it with the chemicals ferrocene and thiophene and shot the mixture into a furnace heated to more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. Inside the oven, the blend turned into a jumble of hollow carbon strands, which the scientists dubbed "elastic smoke." The team then pulled fibers (see image) out of the furnace by winding them on a rotating rod. In a report published online by the journal Science, the inventors write that "the present direct spinning process opens a novel way of one-step production of nanotube fibers, ribbons and coatings with potentially excellent properties and wide range applications."

So far, however, the fibers properties are no more impressive than those of conventionally produced textile fibers. But Windle hopes that by tweaking the reaction conditions, characteristics such as strength and electrical conductivity can be improved. For example, if the tiny tubes can be better aligned, the resulting fibers will be much stronger. Once refined, the authors note that "if this new fiber can challenge conventional high-performance fibers for properties, its vastly simpler method of production will commend it on both cost and environmental grounds."