Boron nitride nanotubes are primed to become effective building blocks for next-generation composite and polymer materials based on a new discovery, according to a team of scientists. Boron nitride nanotubes, like their carbon cousins, are rolled sheets of hexagonal arrays. Unlike carbon nanotubes, they're electrically insulating hybrids made of alternating boron and nitrogen atoms. Insulating nanotubes that can be functionalized will be a valuable building block for nanoengineering projects, according to one of the scientists. Until now, these nanotubes have steadfastly resisted functionalization, the "decorating" of structures with chemical additives that allows them to be customized for applications. The very properties that give boron nitride nanotubes strength and stability, especially at high temperatures, also make them hard to modify for their use in the production of advanced materials. But a Billups-Birch reaction, which frees electrons to bind with other atoms, allowed the team to give the electrically inert boron nitride nanotubes a negative charge.
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