« Comment Spam. | Main | The Telegraph Blog. »

August 21, 2005

Carbon Nanotubes.

Yes, I’m sorry, I know, sometimes the inner geek just insists on outing himself.

One of the things I do in my working life is keep an eye on what’s happening with carbon nanotubes. Various interesting uses have been found for them when they are either coated with or contain scandium, the metal with which I am most closely involved. Like hydrogen tanks for fuel cell powered cars.

However, there’s something much more exciting that can be done with them. Build a Space Elevator. Two recent links at Instapundit (I’m amused that the connection between them doesn’t seem to have been made yet) show quite how close this technology is.

Firstly, what actually is a space elevator and could it really work? The answer is here appears to be Yes. With a proviso. We need to be able to make sheet and ribbon from carbon nanotubes. Three days ago we got the news that we can do that.

It’s difficult for me (a life long sci fi fan) to explain quite how important I think this. The only long term possibility for the survival of our species is for us to get up and off this planet, as so many have tried to tell us in the past. Heinlein, Pournelle, Pratchett, Niven.... we’ve got to get up and out there.

And now we have someone telling us we can do that for $10 billion. That’s less than $2 a head, once off, for each person on the planet. Or if the US did it, less than $40 from each American. Or if we did, 130 quid from each Brit. This is peanuts, less than our own governments piss away on trivia for us already.

Actually, didn’t the US just pass a transportation bill? Didn’t it have more than that allocated to pork barrel stuff like bridges to nowhere? Lord forbid that Congresscritters should give up such time honoured practices but wouldn’t it be nice to have a bill that’s actually about transport?

August 21, 2005 in Weblogs | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c2d3e53ef00d8345a101769e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Carbon Nanotubes.:

» I hate having to write posts like this. from Weblog Licentiae Moeticae
Because I want a space elevator, tanjit. Mind you, this IEEE Spectrum article (via Glenn) on the subject is pretty interesting, and tries to address my major worry on the subject (what happens if the cable breaks?): particularly of note [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 21, 2005 9:56:28 PM

» Space Elevator from ishkabible
Interesting article about a space elevator. Rockets are getting us nowhere fast. Since the dawn of the space age, the way we get into space hasn't changed: we spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on a rocket whose... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 21, 2005 10:22:50 PM

» What is the proper role of government in the econo from Mister Snitch!
Government does best when it facilitates improvements that private businesses can utilize to achieve new efficiencies, and build jobs and wealth. Tim Worstall wants the space elevator built, ASAP [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 21, 2005 10:41:11 PM

» Space Elevators? Beam me up. from Mankind Minus One
Admittedly, I’m no fan of sci-fi.  But the idea of a "space elevator" ranks up there with some of the most delightfully outlandish ideas I’ve ever seen. Rockets are getting us nowhere fast. Since ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 22, 2005 9:11:29 AM

» Carnival of Tomorrow #8 from Tobias S. Buckell Online
Welcome to the 8th Carnival of Tomorrow, a traveling linkdump around the rough theme of tomorrow. I'm your host, Tobias S. Buckell, and here are the links: Leapfrogging is a term given to the technological jump by nations or regions... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 22, 2005 1:50:52 PM

» Carnival of Tomorrow #8 from Tobias S. Buckell Online
Welcome to the 8th Carnival of Tomorrow, a traveling linkdump around the rough theme of tomorrow launched and coordinated by the great folks over at The Speculist. I'm your host for #8, Tobias S. Buckell, and here are the links:... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 22, 2005 1:55:21 PM

» Carnival of Tomorrow #8 from Tobias S. Buckell Online
Welcome to the 8th Carnival of Tomorrow, a traveling linkdump around the rough theme of tomorrow launched and coordinated by the great folks over at The Speculist. I'm your host for #8, Tobias S. Buckell, and here are the links:... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 22, 2005 2:35:33 PM

» Nanotubes! from Samizdata.net
Until a day or two ago, I tended to regard the word "nanotechnology" as nerd-speak for it will never happen. But there really does seem to be a buzz surrounding this latest nanotchnological announcement: A joint effort between the University of Texas a... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 25, 2005 11:30:54 PM

» Nanotubes! from Samizdata.net
Until a day or two ago, I tended to regard the word "nanotechnology" as nerd-speak for it will never happen. But there really does seem to be a buzz surrounding this latest nanotchnological announcement: A joint effort between the University of Texas a... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2005 1:27:36 AM

» Nanotubes! from Samizdata.net
Until a day or two ago, I tended to regard the word "nanotechnology" as nerd-speak for it will never happen. But there really does seem to be a buzz surrounding this latest nanotchnological announcement: A joint effort between the University of Texas a... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2005 6:06:43 PM

» Nanotubes! from Samizdata.net
Until a day or two ago, I tended to regard the word "nanotechnology" as nerd-speak for it will never happen. But there really does seem to be a buzz surrounding this latest nanotchnological announcement: A joint effort between the University of Texas a... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 29, 2005 12:17:26 PM

» Nanotubes! from Samizdata.net
Until a day or two ago, I tended to regard the word "nanotechnology" as nerd-speak for it will never happen. But there really does seem to be a buzz surrounding this latest nanotchnological announcement: A joint effort between the University of Texas a... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 29, 2005 12:19:25 PM

» Space Elevator from ishkabible
Interesting article about a space elevator. Rockets are getting us nowhere fast. Since the dawn of the space age, the way we get into space hasn't changed: we spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on a rocket whose... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 15, 2005 2:59:23 AM

Comments

Has anyone explored the way private enterprise could build/exploit these?

Tim adds: Huge amounts of it in the sci-fi literature. One of the cutest ideas I’ve seen is to go mine a nickel iron asteroid using sunlight as the energy source. Lots of platinum, palladium, osmium etc in those things. At $600 an ounce there’s a lot of money there.

Posted by: Rub-a-Dub | Aug 21, 2005 6:06:08 PM

Tim, the UK can't even coordinate its space policy effectively, gave up any pretensions to independent exploitation of space many years ago and think beyond satellites in its defence vision.
Let's just watch the Japanese colonize the moon and China put us in sight of their space weapons.

Posted by: AW | Aug 21, 2005 7:23:12 PM

Tim, the UK can't even coordinate its space policy effectively, gave up any pretensions to independent exploitation of space many years ago and think beyond satellites in its defence vision.
Let's just watch the Japanese colonize the moon and China put us in sight of their space weapons.

Posted by: AW | Aug 21, 2005 7:24:50 PM

I am excited about the Nature article. The Spectrum article is a (very useful) summary of Dr. Edwards' book.

Don't get too excited yet, though. The UT-Dallas "taffy pull" (my phrase) method works with multi-walled nanotubes, and is not (yet) proven for the strength needed.

What DOES excite me is how quickly commercialization is developing. Once people realize there is money to be made (and not just in "high tech"), a LOT of capital will go towards this.

MG

Posted by: MG | Aug 21, 2005 7:58:39 PM

I have one word to say that will dash all hopes of a space elevator, It's the same one that dashed the hopes of a flying car, and super tall city sized skyscrapers.
Oh we can do it no doubt but remember this word!
Terrorism.
Anytime so group, religion or nut case gets riled up the first thing he will do is crash his flying car, detonate a bomb or fly an airliner into the above mentioned areas and that will be that.
Even now An Islamic group would literally die trying to bring down a space elevator or the Ideal skyscraper city of the Japanese.
We ain't ready for space, We still got the same ideas our grand parents had of spirits in the sky and Ju Ju.

Posted by: Barry | Aug 21, 2005 8:18:51 PM

I have one word to say that will dash all hopes of a space elevator, It's the same one that dashed the hopes of a flying car, and super tall city sized skyscrapers.
Oh we can do it no doubt but remember this word!
Terrorism.
Anytime so group, religion or nut case gets riled up the first thing he will do is crash his flying car, detonate a bomb or fly an airliner into the above mentioned areas and that will be that.
Even now An Islamic group would literally die trying to bring down a space elevator or the Ideal skyscraper city of the Japanese.
We ain't ready for space, We still got the same ideas our grand parents had of spirits in the sky and Ju Ju.

Posted by: Barry | Aug 21, 2005 8:19:32 PM

Barry,

I hope you are being sarcastic. Terrorism did virtually nothing to stop super-tall skyscrapers from being built. There are already several buildings on the drawing boards or under construction that aim to become the world's tallest. I've worked on of them myself. Check out this link below for more information on a tower being planned in Chicago.

http://architectureandmorality.blogspot.com/2005/08/here-we-go-again.html

Posted by: corbusier | Aug 21, 2005 8:43:11 PM

Tim, You're right about space. The fact of the matter is that if we fail to get off this ball of rock, eventually we will all be wiped out. This may be a long time from now, but we have no good reason not to make extra efforts now. The ESA currently spends £5 per year per person in the ESA member countries. That is a pathetically small amount and MUST be increased with the aim not being just terrestrial space applications, (which they boast about a lot) but mainly exploring the immediate practical requirements for colonisation of other solar system planets/natural satelites.

Posted by: Gavin Ayling | Aug 21, 2005 8:52:55 PM

Given that various reactions are catalysed by these things, including some biological ones, and particularly given their particulate sizes, what mechanisms are there in place to stop "carbon nano-tubes", "Bucky Balls" etc. (either the finished products, or the waste material produced during their manufacure), from becomong the "white asbestos" of the 21st Century ?

Posted by: Watching Them, Watching us | Aug 21, 2005 9:06:52 PM

Hey, Barry, you go live in a hole and spend your life hand-wringing. The rest of us will ride up the big elevator and take our chances.

Posted by: Going Up | Aug 21, 2005 9:22:31 PM

The only long term possibility for the survival of our species is for us to get up and off this planet, as so many have tried to tell us in the past. Heinlein, Pournelle, Pratchett, Niven.... we’ve got to get up and out there.

Uh, why? Do you believe everything an S.F. writer writes is going to come true? They may get it right more often than the New York Times, I grant you, but still, they're still wrong far too often to be so categorical here.

You don't think we can conquer unrenewability or wastefulness and find a steady-state equilibrium on this planet? I mean, if the answer is "no", why do we believe we can do so anywhere else? And if the solution is simply to colonize as we grow, what makes anyone think we can do so fast enough to compensate for our wastefulness?

I personally think that the only reason we should build space elevators is because, well, we can, and they're wicked cool. Those are perfectly valid reasons for me. :-) Actually, in all seriousness, I've always thought that the fascination of strapping bombs to an astronaut's butt in hopes it will explode slowly enough to push him into space without killing him is a bit of a fool's errand. Space elevators bring the prospect of travel outside of this humble sphere actually practical.

Having said that, Barry might be well-served to read the Spectrum article, which does at least address the terrorism issue.

Posted by: mcg | Aug 21, 2005 9:40:14 PM

What's breathtaking here is that we don't know what this would lead to in the years beyond our lifetimes. When we built the interstate highway system, when the airplane was invented, when the Internet came of age, who knew it would all add up to free overnight shipping from Amazon?

I want this built, and I want to live to see it built. Terrorism should never be a reason to abort any endeavor. However, if you want to construct a doomsday scenario for your next sci-fi plot, how's this one: The President (or someone of such importance) goes up in the elevator, gets 3/4 or so of the way up, and terrorists cut the ribbon around the halfway mark. The elevator falls - upward - into space.

Posted by: Mr. Snitch! | Aug 21, 2005 10:47:58 PM

Will they need sky-hooks?

Posted by: Guido Fawkes | Aug 21, 2005 11:21:58 PM

To attack a secure location is beyond the capabilities of all terrorists. They would need to gain military tech of at least nuclear arms or precision guided cruise missiles to attack such a target.

Posted by: unaha-closp | Aug 22, 2005 12:20:09 AM

Barry: Sd mcg noted the story Instapundit links to addresses terrorism risk and how small it can be made....

mcg: I am sure that humanity could find solutions that reach the "steady-state equilibrium on this planet" that are both of a high and low tech nature. However, having all of us located at one space-time point makes it easy for tiny cosmic effects (e.g. just a big enough chunk of rock intersecting Earth's orbit) to wipe us all out...regardless if we all are living in one delightfully balance group-hug existence. Even if we get lucky and win the survial jackpot, our sun goes red-star in a few billion years (give or take) and we better be off the planet by then!

Or maybe figure out how to move it out of harms way; after all, the birth-place of humanity would be a cool planet make into a historical/tourist trap!

On topic: The way to get the US congress to fund the damn thing is to turn it into pork aka the highway bill. Of course, the price would double from 40 to 120 knowing the spending patterns of the US govt...but still vastly worth it.

tka

Posted by: tka | Aug 22, 2005 12:32:29 AM

MCG --

I think we can conquer wastefulness/non-renewability.

On the other hand, I know how many asteroids and comets are out there, how many cross Earth's orbit, how hard they are to move, and how ineffective "nuke 'em" would be as a solution.

Any means of stopping an asteroid from hitting the Earth would require an extensive space infrastructure. At the same time, the only place that anyone could survive one of the really big ones hitting the Earth is off-planet. Either way, it's clear that in the long run, the human species must be in space to survive.

And yes, that might be a very, very long "in the long run". But it's inevitable that we will be hit and will go extinct if we don't get off the Earth.

Posted by: Warmongering Lunatic | Aug 22, 2005 12:37:41 AM

>Yes, I’m sorry, I know, sometimes the inner geek just insists on outing himself.

Sometimes?

(Heh heh).

Posted by: Scott Campbell at Blithering Bunny | Aug 22, 2005 12:47:20 AM

Arthur C Clarke foretold the satellite in a factual thesis and the space elevator in fiction. The limitations seem to be that they MUST be build on the equator?

Posted by: Dave t | Aug 22, 2005 1:19:37 AM

No, the equator is just the simplest solution, with the least stress. If the cable has some excess strength, Once it is lowered to the ground, it can be towed to a location considerably distant from the equator; It will simply adopt a curve, rather than be straight.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Aug 22, 2005 1:38:38 AM

I'm not worried about the human race getting wiped out. What worries me is the likelihood that in a few decades, Earth will consist of nanny states, failed states, and police states, with the livable places having increasingly homogeneous laws. As in, they won't just ban foie gras in the UK. They'll ban it in France, too. And so on. What'll you do if you don't like the laws where you are? Not much. Imagine a boot stepping on a canapé — forever!

"Steady-state equilibrium" ought to be your worst fear.

Posted by: Professor Froward | Aug 22, 2005 1:53:08 AM

Ah, I see, the cosmic cataclysm issue :) Now that makes sense. We by no means have to continuously expand our domain, but it would do good to at least spread throughout the habitable (-with-technology) solar system.

Of course, that will only last as long as our sun does :)

Posted by: mcg | Aug 22, 2005 3:20:37 AM

Snitch:
"goes up in the elevator, gets 3/4 or so of the way up, and terrorists cut the ribbon around the halfway mark. The elevator falls - upward - into space."

Nah, won't have sufficient horizontal velocity. Anything on a broken cable below geostationary would drop to a lower orbit, anything above would rise to a higher one. Something would have to be on the cable well above the hub to be moving at escape velocity. And that is assuming that the cages can detach from the broken cable.

As far as terrorists are concerned, nanotube sheets would have about the same terminal velocity as a sheet of paper. Cable outside the atmosphere would burn up on re-entry, anything below would just flutter down. The thing to worry about would be the effect of a falling elevator cage. If a cable were cut the hub, in geostationary orbit, would rise and then fall again as it extruded more cable downwards. The only way of really destroying the thing would be to stick a bomb in the hub.

Hmm, maybe I should go read the article.

In order for this to work, the material needs to be 50% nanotubes and 50% binding material. The last I came across was that we were able to usefully create something that was about 15% nanotubes. Anyone heard anything more up to date?

Posted by: Chris harper | Aug 22, 2005 3:59:17 AM

But think about it guys, what effect will this stuff have in EVERY single area of manufacturing and construction.

Building, houses, road surfaces, bridges, cars, toys, anything. Everything.

Support cables that look like gossamer.

Clothing. Clothing for gods sake. Thread which doesn't fray. A pair of jeans handed down through the generations. So much for the throw away society.

Gulp, urban weapons. string the thread across doorways and induce your enemy to run through it. Shades of Sinclair monofilament, or sunsquare cable.

Posted by: Chris harper | Aug 22, 2005 4:18:47 AM

$10 billion? Don't believe it. Either it's wishful thinking or it's crafty accounting.

If it was true, Gates and company would be doing it. When it IS true, Gates and company WILL be doing it.

Posted by: Kevin Murphy | Aug 22, 2005 7:57:27 AM

I love science, but initial studies show nanotubes to be highly carinogenic, when inhaled in minute quantities. I hope they keep up the nanotube studies, but that is a pretty big hurdle to overcome.

Posted by: Kevin | Aug 22, 2005 8:57:15 AM