The researchers said they discovered bombarding a carbon nanotube with electrons caused it to collapse with such incredible force that it can squeeze out even the hardest of materials -- much like a tube of toothpaste.
That ability might offer the capability to process materials as if in a nanoscale jig or extruder. Jigs control the motion of tools, and extruders push or draw materials through molds to create long objects of a fixed diameter.
The newly reported findings suggest nanotubes could perform similar functions at the scale of atoms and molecules, the researchers said.
In the experiments, nanotubes withstood pressures as high as 40 gigapascals, just an order of magnitude below the roughly 350 gigapascals of pressure at the center of the Earth.
"Researchers will need a wide range of tools to manipulate structures at the nanoscale, and this could be one of them," said Pulickel Ajayan, professor of materials science and engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
The research appears in the May 26 issue of the journal Science.