For the last two decades, it’s been said that carbon nan­otubes hold the promise to trans­form a range of fields, from alter­na­tive energy to drug delivery. But making that happen has proved dif­fi­cult, according to Hicham Fen­niri, an inter­na­tional leader in nan­otech­nology and new pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engi­neering.

Carbon nan­otubes are fas­ci­nating mate­rials,” said Fen­niri, who also serves as a Director of the Bio­med­ical Engi­neering Research Center in Doha, Qatar. “They have amazing chem­ical and phys­ical prop­er­ties, but they are chal­lenging from a syn­thetic point of view.” Con­trol­ling their size, purity, and elec­trical prop­er­ties, he explained, are just a few of the chal­lenges standing in the way of real­izing the material’s high-​​value added applications.

In the early 90s, Fen­niri decided to take mat­ters into his own hands. “I was thinking, how can we develop a mate­rial from the ground up so we can con­trol all these prop­er­ties,” he said. Since then, his work has led to the devel­op­ment of the world’s first self-​​assembling organic nan­otube, a sig­na­ture accom­plish­ment that estab­lished him as one of the field’s leading innovators.

In con­trast to carbon nan­otubes, Fenniri’s truly organic tubes con­sist not only of carbon but also other ele­ments that make up all living things—oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and many others. The tubes are bio­com­pat­ible, making them a prime mate­rial to use as a coating for a med­ical implant or as a vehicle for drug delivery. Fen­niri is also using them as com­po­nents in novel elec­tronic and pho­tonic devices.

His­tor­i­cally, a con­duc­tive organic supramol­e­c­ular nanowire has been an elu­sive target. But in recent years, Fen­niri and his col­leagues have been hard at work attempting to use their nan­otubes as car­riers for elec­trons, just as con­duc­tive metal wires do;. Their pre­lim­i­nary reports have con­firmed the fea­si­bility of their inno­v­a­tive strategy.  The poten­tial achieve­ment, he said, could trans­form the alter­na­tive energy sector. He is also exploring poten­tial med­ical appli­ca­tions for his mate­rials, including whether they would make effec­tive antibac­te­rial agents.

With organic chem­istry, you can con­struct essen­tially any mol­e­cule by a com­bi­na­tion of reac­tions and processes,” Fen­niri explained. “Really, you can liken it to a chess game: you can look at the target mol­e­cules and design a strategy to get there.”

This is exactly the approach his team is taking in the devel­op­ment of new appli­ca­tions for their self-​​assembling nan­otubes, which com­prise smaller chem­ical com­po­nents that have been adapted to fit their par­tic­ular needs. Fen­niri com­pared the syn­thetic approach to a set of Lego bricks—instead of dif­ferent colors you have dif­ferent chemistries. With this arsenal of building blocks and the nat­ural ten­dency of mol­e­cules to obey cer­tain orga­ni­za­tional laws, he’s win­ning a host of mol­e­c­ular chess games.