What is diamond nanothread?
We’ve been hearing about graphene changing the world of technology for years, although we’re yet to actually see a breakthrough. Now, the carbon-based wonder material is already at risk of being overtaken. Last week, we wrote about carbon nanotubes – an incredibly strong, rolled form of graphene – but this month’s clever material is potentially just as strong and light: diamond nanothread.
What is diamond nanothread?
It’s not the same as the rock on your finger, but there are similarities. The gems are the result of carbon atoms being pressed together, while the “diamond” in this material is made by stacking benzene molecules and compressing them to create strings of carbon. The molecules form a structure similar to diamond, with the benzene atoms linking in an unexpected and strong way.
It’s a material that’s incredibly light and thin – at only a few atoms across, it’s hundreds of thousands of times thinner than optical fibres – but also as strong as carbon nanotubes.
What can you do with it?
It could be used to create lighter, stronger and smaller devices. Aside from nanotechnology, that could include cars that weigh less, require less fuel and release fewer emissions, noted scientists from Penn State University. But that’s less interesting than their other potential use: super-strong, lightweight cables that could be used to make a “space elevator” – a lift that would carry people into space without using rockets. This was first mooted in 1895, but has remained science fiction ever since.
It’s now possible to attach different molecules around the carbon and hydrogen core – so existing materials could get a stronger atomic core.
What’s holding this back?
It’s not easy to make diamond nanothread: the benzene must be compressed in a particular way, which has only been achieved in Penn State’s own lab. The space elevator may also stay a fantasy, as the threads may become brittle beyond certain lengths.
But discoveries at the Queensland University of Technology may still overcome that problem. By modelling the structure of diamond nanotubes, they realised that integrating defects into the strings made them less brittle. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the weak points act as hinges, increasing the flexibility of the nanothread.
This means the material could soon be attracting the attention – and funding – that graphene enjoys.
Are people really trying to build space elevators?
Unbelievably, yes. Canadian firm Thoth Technology has filed a patent for the ThothX Tower, which uses a space elevator to pull people 20 kilometres up. Astronauts could then head into orbit via a spaceplane, departing from an inflatable spaceport, and tourists can take in the amazing view.
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Images: Penn State