Monday, April 16, 2007

Fun Things to Make With Carbon


Any Space traveller needs some chemistry. Kea has good posts about Earth's climate. Even before the current controversy, it was clear that humans put too much junk in the atmosphere. There are better things to do with carbon than spewing it chaotically into the atmosphere. Despite claims that the Universe will end in chaos, new structures are continually being created. Even in parameter space, nature has created a tree of life.

Life on Earth, from microbes to redwoods, is based on carbon. In nature carbon takes many forms, from the graphite in pencils to diamonds. Before Buckminster Fuller invented geodesic domes, nature was already creating them. In 1985 researchers discovered Carbon-60 occuring naturally in soot. Because of its shape, this molecule was named the Buckminster Fullerene or Buckyball. More recently physicists have discovered other forms of fullerenes. like the nanotube.

Graphene (pictured above) is the thinnest possible molecular materiel, a single layer of carbon molecules. Physicist Walter de Heer at Georgia Institute of Technology pioneered the production of graphene from silicon carbide wafers. (His funding grant was rejected by NSF, but Intel saw a good thing and funded his experiments.) Since 2004 Physicist Andre Geim at University of Manchester has produced graphene by an amazingly inexpensive process. He placed graphite flakes on a piece of ordinary Scotch tape. By folding and refolding the tape he produced flakes just one molecule thick. You can do good science on the cheap.


Carbon nanotubes are cylindrical fullerenes, sheets of graphene rolled into tubes less than one nanometer thick. Their tensile strength has already been added to existing materiels. Thanks to nanotubes, Floyd Landis' bicycle in the 2006 Tour de France had a frame weighing only one kilogram! So far researchers have been unable to produce nanotubes in long fibers. Mass production of nanotubes would have many applications, from stronger bridges to Space.


(Spider-Man's webbing has enormous tensile strength. Since Spider-Man is a carbon-based life form, one suspects that his webbing contains carbon nanotubes.)

Arthur Clarke's novel THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE is set in motion by the introduction of "hyperfilament." This sci fi materiel is described as a continuous pseudo one-dimensional diamond crystal, which could be a rough description of nanotubes. In the novel it can only be produced by micro-gravity factories in orbit. In Clarke's novel, hyperfilament allows construction of the first Space Elevator. TOMORROW we'll see one possible destination.

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12 Comments:

Blogger QUASAR9 said...

lol Louise, you can't go anywhere in a space elevator
The orbits of the Earth & Moon, would twist & snap the strongest of steel cables or spider 'silk' and even the most 'elastic' carbon

8:56 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Nice hearing from you, Q9. Most of the companies working on Space Elevators envision some sort of anchor, like the damper in Taipei 101 to damp out oscillations. More about that tomorrow.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Kea said...

Heh, I've come across de Heer! His papers were recommended to me by the nanotech guys when I started quizzing them about variation of properties with atomic cluster size. Unfortunately, I have not pursued this intriguing line of thinking further, for there is too much to do...

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