In 1952, at the height of the Cold War, the Russians were onto something – two Russian scientists published a photo in a Soviet science journal that clearly showed extremely small tubes made from carbon. However, due to conditions at the time, and the fact that the article was only in Russian, the rest of the scientific world didn’t notice, and the finding fizzled out.
Fast forward to Christchurch, in the 1970s, where scientist Professor John Abrahamson was fiddling around with carbon and electricity, pushing arcs of electrical energy into rods of negatively charged carbon – you know, normal stuff. He was surprised at the end of the experiment to see small fibres left on the rods. They were unexpected and ‘jumped out of the electron-micrograph at us, like a forest of very fine fibres or “carbon grass” as we called them.’ Unlike the Russians, Abrahamson shared samples of his findings with five of the most well-known labs around the world. No one got that excited – it was too early to recognise their potential. But it turned out that it wasn’t carbon grass at all; it was a new form of carbon, where the atoms had arranged themselves into a tube. Abrahamson is now among those credited with discovering this new form of carbon – carbon nanotubes (CNT).