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Ultra-Thin Diamond Nanothreads May Form Cables to Create 'Space Elevator'

First Posted: Sep 23, 2014 08:06 AM EDT

Imagine cables strong enough and light enough to haul an "elevator" into space. Scientists may have just taken a step closer to doing just that. For the first time, they've discovered how to produce ultra-thin "diamond nanothreads" that may have the strength and stiffness greater than that of today's strongest nanotubes and polymers.

"From a fundamental-science point of view, our discovery is intriguing because the threads we formed have a structure that has never been seen before," said John Badding, one of the researchers, in a news release.

In order to create the threads, the researchers used a high-pressure Paris-Edinburgh device to compress a 6-millimeter-wide amount of benzene. By slowly releasing the pressure after sufficient compression at normal room temperature, the scientists managed to give the carbon atoms the time they needed to react with each other and link up in a highly ordered chain of single-file carbon tetrahedrons, forming diamond-core nanothreads.

"It really is surprising that this kind of organization happens," said Badding. "That the atoms of the benzene molecules link themselves together at room temperature to make a thread is shocking to chemists and physicists. Considering earlier experiments, we think that, when the benzene molecule breaks under very high pressure, its atoms want to grab onto something else but they can't move around because the pressure removes all the space between them. This benzene then becomes highly reactive so that, when we release the pressure very slowly, an orderly polymerization reaction happens that forms the diamond-core nanothread."

Currently, the high pressures that were used to create this diamond nanothread material limit its production capacity to only a couple of cubic millimeters at a time. But if scientists manage to scale up production, it's possible that the tread could be used for quite a few industrial applications.

"One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a 'space elevator,' which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea," said Badding.

Currently, the researchers are continuing their work in order to make these materials a bit more functional for industrial use.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Materials.

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