What is a carbon nanotube, and what does it matter?
As explained by How Stuff Works, "A carbon nanotube is a nano-size cylinder of carbon atoms. Imagine a sheet of carbon atoms, which would look like a sheet of hexagons. If you roll that sheet into a tube, you'd have a carbon nanotube. . . . With the right arrangement of atoms, you can create a carbon nanotube that's hundreds of times stronger than steel, but six times lighter."
In 2009, Discover Magazine published an article called "9 Ways Carbon Nanotubes Just Might Rock the World." The subtitle hinted at some of the nine ways, reading, "Nanotubes have been billed as the key to curing cancer, building space elevators, and creating real-world Spidermen. Whether they're totally tubular or just an overhyped pipe dream remains to be seen."
Fast forward eleven years and you can find articles on a use that isn't mentioned in the Discover piece, but has its own potential to "rock the world." Although it isn't the first time carbon nanotubes have been studied in relation to spinal cord injury, a recent study in Italy focused on using carbon nanotubes as scaffolds to support nerve growth in a living mammal with a partially-severed spinal cord — not in cell cultures, as done previously.
By inserting an implant that is "a kind of sponge of carbon nanotubes comprising interwoven fibers," researchers found that the nerves could be reconnected at the damage site. The animals with the implants "regained functionality" without any apparent adverse reactions. While researchers caution that they are not ready to transfer the technology to humans yet, the results of the study are encouraging. Eventually, this technology could be implemented as a treatment for similar spinal cord injuries, injuries of the optic nerve, and other types of nerve damage.
And in the meantime, there's always the space elevator application. That, too, is moving closer to reality.