space elevator
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space elevator
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Artist Pat Rawling’s concept of a space elevator shows one view of how a vehicle would travel between earth and space to carry people and cargo. This is the view looking down the cable from a geostationary platform above the earth. (Courtesy NASA)

Japanese construction firm, Obayashi announced its intention of building a space elevator to carry materials and people into space at a fraction of the cost of today’s rockets. The plan is to have one in place by 2050 with the help of an international organization set up for the task.

What is the magic material Obayashi will depend on? Cables made from carbon nanotechnology with tensile strengths more than 100 times greater than steel and with far less weight. It might take until 2030 to get nanotechnology capable of creating a cable long enough, but once it’s available researchers at Kanagawa University could be ready with robotic climbing cars.

The idea is not new, having been previously imagined in the 1890s by a Russian scientist. Other ideas in the 1900s included suspending a cable from a satellite, but later some American engineers figured out the cable would have to be twice as strong as any existing materials.

But nano materials have strength characteristics that might do the trick. There are already similar advances being used in elevator technology allowing cars to travel greater distances because they don’t have the additional mass associated with steel cables.

Other advances in the tiny particle field might also find their way into such a project. For example, researchers at the University of Alberta discovered that abundant earth materials such as phosphorus and zinc could be used to make inexpensive nano particle-based solar cells. The cells could be sprayed on to materials creating arrays of solar cells for generating power.

And, what about the robotic cars themselves that will travel along the cable? With all the junk in space they will need to have some tough skins. Enter nanofibers developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that add another material to the shortlist of those which are both strong and tough.

Strength usually comes at the expense of toughness when considering structural materials. The greater the load a material will carry, the greater its strength. Its toughness factor refers to how much energy it takes to break it. These new nanofibers excel at being both strong and tough and when woven together they can make a skin that is lightweight as well. Perhaps just the thing for a cable-tied vehicle moving between space and earth.

 

 

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