"The single-walled carbon nanotube samples in this situation were just a jumble of tubes," said Pulickel Ajayan, an associate professor at Rensselaer. "They were not laid out in any pattern, and because of that, the heat generated from the flash could not dissipate, so the nanotubes just burned."

The carbon nanotubes also emitted a loud pop as they ignited. Although the tubes only burnt on exposure to a camera flash if oxygen was present, in inert gas environments their atomic structures altered.

"While the initial surprise is that the nanotubes will ignite upon exposure to a camera flash, perhaps most exciting is the fact that the nanotubes are transformed into new carbon structures in the absence of oxygen," added Thomas Ebbesen of the Université Louis Pasteur, a co-author of the paper reporting the findings in the April 26th issue of Science.

The discovery means that single-walled carbon nanotubes could have applications in light sensors, or as remote triggers for explosives and combustion reactions. Low-power light sources could also be used to create new forms of nanomaterials.

Researchers from the IPICYT (Instituto Potosino de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica) in Mexico and the University of Sussex, UK also took part in the study.