Nanotech: Super Threads

Superman's "s" never showed so much as scuff. But a superstrong, superlightweight fabric capable of stopping a speeding bullet has eluded researchers for decades. They found their magic thread back in 1991, when Sumio Iijima at NEC Laboratories discovered the carbon nanotube, a cylinder a few nanometers thick that's 50 times stronger than steel. But how do you spin microscopic tubes into a yarn?

University of Texas nanotechnologist Ray Baughman came up with a low-tech way. He took a mat of chemically grown nanotubes, grabbed a clump of them and twisted them with a motor. The resulting yarn could be woven into a fabric.

It might also make a good artificial muscle. A jolt of electricity causes the yarn to contract with 100 times more force than a human muscle. Baughman now has a grant from the Pentagon to develop an "exoskeleton" capable of amplifying the natural strength of a soldier.