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The new material, carbyne, brings the space elevator a little closer

space-elevatorThe title of wonder element has been awarded to many contenders. It has in the past been gold or platinum, then aluminium had its turn. In fact humble carbon looks increasingly as though it might be among the winners. Not only is it the basis of life as we know it, it has also given us diamonds, buckeyballs, nanotubes and graphene. Now there’s carbyne, a chain of carbon atoms linked by alternate triple and single bonds or by consecutive double bonds. Chains up to 44 atom long have been synthesized, but previous thinking had deemed it unstable. Now a team led by Mingjie Liu at Rice University in Houston has calculated its properties and they make fascinating reading. For starters it’s about twice as stiff as nanotubes or graphene. It’s also stronger than anything else and flexible with it, in that it can be tweaked to rotate freely or be torsionally stiff. And it can be made stable.

Down to business. It will need engineering to develop its practical capabilities, just as it did for nanotubes and graphene. I’ve seen some graphene from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, and it’s amazing stuff. I have no doubt that engineering will also give us practical carbyne. Then we come to its uses. The space elevator, depicted in Arthur C Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise,” takes payloads and passengers into orbit via a cable connecting the Earth’s surface to geostationary orbit, and with a counterweight beyond. It will need materials stronger than we have, which is why carbyne is significant. Before then it will doubtless have uses in aircraft and construction, and other areas where the strength to weight ratio is critical. But the big prize will be the space elevator, externally powered, low g-force, and very cheap indeed to operate once it is built. It might facilitate the jump from exploration to colonization.

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One Response

  1. Carbon nanotube technology could allow structures hundreds of miles high to be built. The strength of this material is mind boggling. If this is possible in the future we could take a lift/elevator and step out into space orbit. Your prediction may well see this happen……care to estimate a date ?

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