Space Elevator Downer

Scientists and science fiction fans alike have big plans for carbon nanotubes; it has been hoped that a cable made of carbon nanotubes would be strong enough to serve as a space elevator. However, recent calculations by Nicola Pugno of the Polytechnic of Turin, Italy, suggest that carbon nanotube cables will not work.


(Looking down a carbon nanotube)

American engineers worked on the problem in the mid-1960's. What type of material would be required to build a space elevator? According to their calculations, the cable would need to be twice as strong as that of any existing material including graphite, quartz, and diamond.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke recognized the materials problem; his ingenuity was equal to the task of creating just such a material. In his excellent 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise, he thought up a special form of carbon, something called a "continuous pseudo-one dimensional diamond crystal," to serve as the cable material. To the delight of sf fans and aerospace engineers, Japanese researcher Sumio Iijima (at NEC) discovered carbon nanotubes, which are cylindrical carbon fibers exhibiting strength 100 times greater than that of steel at one sixth the weight, and high strain to failure.

In something of a "downer" for space elevator fans, Pugno has calculated that inevitable defects will greatly reduce the strength of any manufactured nanotubes. Laboratory tests have demonstrated that flawless individual nanotubes can withstand about 100 gigapascals of tension; however, if a nanotube is missing just one carbon atom, it can reduce its strength by as much as thirty percent. Bulk materials made of many connected nanotubes are even weaker, averaging less than 1 gigapascal in strength.

In order to function, a space elevator ribbon would need to withstand at least 62 gigapascals of tension. It therefore appears that the defects described above would eliminate carbon nanotubes as a usable material for a space elevator cable. Pugno will publish his paper in the July edition of Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter. Nanotube enthusiasts counter that ribbons made of close-packed long nanotubes would demonstrate cooperative friction forces that could make up for weaknesses in individual nanotubes.

Read more about Arthur C. Clarke's one-dimensional diamond crystal; in Carbon Nanotube Ribbon for Space Elevator a method of creating meter-long nanotube ribbons is described. A robotic lifter that would traverse a space elevator ribbon has also been tested. Read more about the current controversy at Nature.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/26/2006)

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