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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Nanotechnology and Zero Net Energy Housing > Outer-space an Elevator Ride Away Thanks to Nanotech?

Brandon Engel

Scientist are using nano-threads to construct an elevator that will take riders to outerspace. Fascinating idea - but is it viable?

November 4th, 2014

Outer-space an Elevator Ride Away Thanks to Nanotech?

Benzene, a colorless liquid with a smell like sugary gasoline, is an alchemist's playground. When pressurized, it polymerizes. Its hexagon molecules break their bonds and fall on top of one another like bricks of rubble. Once relieved of pressure, the milling molecules reorganize like marching infantry platoons. Usually, they form themselves into amorphous, glass-like crumbs with little structure.

Amorphous polymer crumbs were what blonde-haired John Badding and his team of scientists at Penn State University were after. They fed a few drops of benzene into a Paris-Edinburgh high-pressure cell at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The benzene sample was slowly compressed to approximately 20 gigapascals - 200,000 times the pressure at the surface of the earth - and then decompressed and left to reorganize. The reactive benzene molecules, frantic for company, latched onto one another and slowly composed themselves into a long thread: a single-file line of diamonds.

It was unexpected. "That the atoms of the benzene molecules link themselves together at room temperature to make a thread is shocking to chemists and physicists," said Badding, a Manhattan College alumnus and Professor of Chemistry. His team confirmed their findings at Penn State, Arizona State University and the Carnegie Institute of Washington using X-ray diffraction, transmission electron microscopy, solid-state NMR and other techniques.

"It is as if an incredible jeweler has strung together the smallest possible diamonds into a long miniature necklace," Badding told the Business Insider. The tetrahedral diamond nanotubes, which have never before been made, are thousands of times thinner than a human hair. "Because this thread is diamond at heart, we expect that it will prove to be extraordinarily stiff, extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily useful."

The possibilities are endless. "The dream is to be able to add other atoms that would be incorporated into the resulting nanothread," said Badding. "By pressurizing whatever liquid we design, we may be able to make an enormous number of different materials."

Obayashi, a Japanese construction magnate, has other plans: a cable stretching one-quarter the distance from the earth to the moon. The 60,000-mile cable would carry a 30-passenger elevator car zipping along at 124 mph to a space station locked in geostationary orbit. Round trip would take two weeks. Obayashi looks to carbon and diamond nanotubes, more than 100 times stronger than steel, to ferry passengers, spacecraft and trash into the blackness beyond. Yoji Ishikawa, Obayashi research and development manager, said in an interview, "We think by 2050 we'll be able to do it."

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a bearded Russian school teacher working in the late 1880s, was the first to envision - and publicly admit - a space elevator. He envisioned a "celestial castle" tethered to a 22,000-mile towline of sorts. Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer and prophet extraordinaire, further popularized the idea in his novel, The Foundations of Paradise published in 1978. This was, incidentally, only one of several predictions that Clarke made that ended up becoming a reality decades later, like high speed internet and video chat.

"There was nothing wrong with the theory [of the space elevator], but the practical problems were enormous," Clarke admitted. A steel cable would snap under its own weight. Stronger synthetic materials cost more than the national GDP. In his novel, Clarke used a fictional, ribbon-like "hyperfilament," manufactured in deep-space factories, to construct his Orbital Tower. "For in a sense it is a tower," he wrote, "rising clear through the atmosphere, and far, far beyond."

Problems remain legion. The longest carbon nanotubes made to date are three or so centimeters, leaving 59,999.99 thousand miles to go. Badding and his crack chemists face other challenges. "The high pressures that we use limits our production capacity to only a couple of cubic millimeters." Economies of scale, not raw science, may become the fatal kink in the cable.

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