We’re obviously still a long way away from actually being anywhere close to capable of building a space elevator, but the concept holds a ton of promise — though getting it to not collapse and kill us all could be a bit tougher than we thought.
The prevailing proposal is to use carbon nanotubes, which are ultra-powerful and (theoretically) strong enough to support an elevator to Earth orbit. Except it might not actually be that strong. New Scientist reports on a new study at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where a team tried to figure out why we haven’t actually been able to make carbon nanotubes as powerful as advertised. The findings? If even one atom is out of place, the nanotube drastically loses its strength.
Theoretically, the tubes should have a tensile strength of 100 gigapascals (GPa), but we’ve only been able to reach 1 GPa. The study found that just one atom off could drop that 100 GPa to 40 GPa, which (basic math) cuts the strength to less than half, but causes a kink in the chain. If you’re building an elevator to space, that’s a pretty critical flaw.
If these findings prove accurate, it's a shame. Sure, a space elevator is a wild pitch, but it could conceivably cut down on the cost of space travel considerably. With a space elevator, you could literally launch ships from space. No gigantic, expensive rockets required. Here's hoping the world's greatest minds are able to un-kink the chain.
(Via New Scientist)