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[Image above] Credit: Rice University; YouTube

Self-assembly is pretty amazing. But long-distance self-assembly? Now you’re talking.

Research led by Rice University scientists—and including collaborators from the University of Tennessee, Texas A&M Engineering, and Second Baptist School—have discovered that they can use Tesla coils to direct long-range self-assembly of carbon nanotubes.

The team is calling the phenomena Teslaphoresis because it harnesses the power of Tesla coils, the hair-raising transformer circuits invented by famed scientist Nikola Tesla.

“Electric fields have been used to move small objects, but only over ultrashort distances,” team leader Paul Cherukuri says in a Rice press release. “With Teslaphoresis, we have the ability to massively scale up force fields to move matter remotely.”

For instance, the team recently showed that it can self-assemble nanotubes into conductive wires that can light an LED.

The Tesla coil-generated force field causes positive and negative charges to oscillate within the carbon nanotubes, charging them to assemble into long lines and pull towards the coil. Perhaps even more interestingly, the nanotubes also absorb energy from the Tesla coil, lighting the LEDs.

Watch the self-assembly in action—and hear more from researchers themselves—in the short video below.

Credit: Rice University; YouTube

But the scientists think this illuminating demonstration is just the beginning of the possibilities of Teslaphoresis.

“These nanotube wires grow and act like nerves, and controlled assembly of nanomaterials from the bottom up may be used as a template for applications in regenerative medicine,” Lindsey Bornhoeft, the paper’s lead author and a biomedical engineering graduate student at Texas A&M University says in the release.

“There are so many applications where one could utilize strong force fields to control the behavior of matter in both biological and artificial systems,” Cherukuri adds in the release. “And even more exciting is how much fundamental physics and chemistry we are discovering as we move along. This really is just the first act in an amazing story.”

The paper, published in ACS Nano, is “Teslaphoresis of carbon nanotubes” (DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b02313).