The new technique works because the salt water conducts electricity. As the voltage on the tape changes, electrical charge carriers are injected into the nanotubes. These form electrolyte ions near the surface of the tape. On the cathode side of the tape, electrons are attracted to the nanotubes and cause them to expand. On the anode side, electron "holes" cause the nanotubes to contract.

According to Baughman and his colleagues the nanotube 'muscle' could generate and survive higher stresses than any other materials, including real muscle tissue and ferroelectric materials. Moreover, the voltages needed to bend the nanotubes are much lower than those needed to change the shape of ferroelectric materials. This suggests the nanotube sheets could have a wide range of practical applications including optical fibre switches and microscopic pumps.