A team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Mass., scientists say they've discovered a phenomenon that might lead to a new way of producing electricity. The researchers, led by Associate Professor Michael Strano, said their discovery of the phenomenon that causes waves of energy to shoot through carbon nanotubes -- described as thermopower waves -- is similar to flotsam being propelled along the ocean's surface by waves. The scientists said a thermal wave -- a moving pulse of heat -- traveling along a submicroscopic nanotube can drive electrons along with it, creating an electrical current.

Because it is such a new discovery, Strano said it's difficult to predict what the practical applications will be, but he suggests it might enable new kinds of ultra-small electronic devices. For example, devices the size of grains of rice or perhaps a sensor or treatment device that could be injected into the body. In theory, he said, such devices could maintain their power indefinitely until used, unlike batteries whose charge gradually diminishes as they remain unused.

The research is reported in the journal Nature Materials.