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The World's Smallest Radio

A single carbon nanotube can function as a radio that detects and plays songs
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Shelter Productions (photo); Kursten Bracchi (prop styling); Anthony Isambert for Halley Resources (grooming)

Nanotechnology is arguably one of the most overhyped “next big things” in the recent history of applied science. According to its most radical advocates, nanotechnology is a molecular manufacturing system that will allow us to fabricate objects of practically any arbitrary complexity by mechanically joining molecule to molecule, one after another, until the final, atomically correct product emerges before our eyes.

The reality has been somewhat different: today the word “nano” has been diluted to the point that it applies to essentially anything small, even down to the “nanoparticles” in commodities as diverse as motor oil, sunscreen, lipstick and ski wax. Who, then, would have expected that one of the first truly functional nanoscale devices—one that would have a measurable effect on the larger, macroscale world—would prove to be ... a radio? But the nanotube radio, invented in 2007 by physicist Alex Zettl and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, performs a set of amazing feats: a single carbon nanotube tunes in a broadcast signal, amplifies it, converts it to an audio signal and then sends it to an external speaker in a form that the human ear can readily recognize. If you have any doubts about this assertion, just visit www.sciam.com/nanoradio and listen to the song “Layla.”

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