The far-fetched notion of a space elevator ascending into Earth orbit and beyond has been around for more than a hundred years, but until recently it was considered wildly cost-prohibitive, irresponsible and totally impractical. With the advent of carbon nanotube technology, however, the hurdle of creating a material with a high enough tensile strength for an Earth-bound tether line was becoming smaller.
But a sparkling new discovery by scientist John Badding and his research team at Penn State University has space elevator enthusiasts all aglow, weaving microscopic diamonds into ultra-tough nanothreads more macho than nanotubes and capable of enduring the phenomenal forces exerted on a spaceship-climbing tether.
The core of these remarkable threads contains a thin strand of carbon atoms arranged to mimic a diamond's internal composition -- zig-zag "cychlohexane" rings of six carbon atoms -- then fortified and surrounded by others in the triangular-pyramid shape of a tetrahedron. Badding's team is the first to lure carbon atoms into that invincible tetrahedron shape, then link them together to form these amazingly strong nanothreads.
"It is as if an incredible jeweler has strung together the smallest possible diamonds into a long miniature necklace," added Badding in his university press release. "Because this thread is diamond at heart, we expect that it will prove to be extraordinarily stiff, extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily useful. These nanothreads can be used to protect the atmosphere, including lighter, more fuel-efficient, and therefore less-polluting vehicles. One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a 'space elevator' which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea."
Obstacles such as eventual costs and mass-production logistics aside, this could be a massive leap forward to seeing the sci-fi fantasy of an operating space elevator in our future. To read the entire report on these cool carbon-based nanothreads, hop over to Nature Materials' site here.