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UC Berkeley creates radio out of a nanotube

Radio, made out of a single carbon nanotube about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, runs on batteries and requires headphones.

University of California at Berkeley's nanoradio might be a 100 billion times smaller than the first commercial radios, but it plays the hits that never die.

Alex Zettl, a professor of physics at the university, has made a radio out of a single carbon nanotube that's about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. It runs on batteries and you need headphones to use it, but it tunes in stations on the FM dial.

Zettl and his team last year received their first FM broadcast, which turned out to be "Layla" from Derek and the Dominoes. They also caught "Good Vibrations." In homage to the 100th anniversary of the first voice and music transmission, they transmitted (and tuned in to) a recording of "Largo," from the Handel opera Xerxes. It was the first successful radio transmission of music in 1906.

The nanotube serves as the antenna, tuner, amplifier, and demodulator in the radio. In an ordinary radio, these are all separate components. The nanotube vibrates thousands to millions of times per second in tune with the radio wave.

Carbon nanotubes are the miracle material of the chemistry world. Stronger than steel yet very light, nanotubes can also transmit electricity faster than metals as well as emit light. Scientists speculate that nanotubes one day could be incorporated into silicon chips, power lines, medicines, bridges, and aircraft parts. Nanotubes are essentially cylinders made completely from carbon atoms; the incredibly strong bonds that can be formed between carbon atoms are what give nanotubes their unusual properties.

Right now, though, nanotubes are mostly used to make things like tennis rackets and car panels stronger without adding weight.

"The nanotube radio may lead to radical new applications, such as radio-controlled devices small enough to exist in a human's bloodstream," wrote Zettl and his team in a paper that was released online Wednesday and will be published November 6 in Nano Letters.

The nanoradio could also be used to measure the mass of atoms.