It has been a long time since I was last truly impressed with something but the possibility of an elevator into outer space has certainly piqued my interest. Not since a boy have I thought about the possibility of a rope hanging from the sky that can be climbed-up to reach the stars; such day dreams are for children with all the time in the world and an imagination to match. Yet this dream is not as fanciful as it seems.
The idea of an elevator into space, sky hook, space bridge, there have been so many names for it over the years, was first put forward by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895, when he imagined building a tower that would reach 22,000 miles into the sky. Such absurd feats of engineering have never been possible due to the levels of strain that would exerted by the weight of such a building. Yet, the Obayashi Corporation has recently announced plans to construct something with the very same aim. The Japanese corporation declared earlier this week that they are actively working towards building a space elevator by the year 2050.
In fact the idea is taken so seriously that there now exists a journal dedicated to the science and engineering of space elevators. So, why the sudden interest in something that has been unfeasible for over a hundred years. Well, the answer lies in graphene, a new material that is super light and two hundred times stronger than steel. Never before has a bridge to the sky been possible because of weight and stress issues, but now, with the discovery of this new material, what was once the dream of children is now a very real possibility.
Graphene is an allotrope of carbon, it shares the same atomic structure as graphite but with one very big difference; graphene is a nanomaterial just one atom deep. The surprising thing however is that the thickness of the material is actually what makes it stronger. Graphene derives its strength from the fact that all the bonding energy between the carbon atoms is shared only in 2 dimensions rather than three. This means that each carbon atom is held tightly in place, making this form of carbon the strongest and lightest engineering material on earth.
You should expect to hear big things about this material in the future. Its properties are astounding scientists around the world and it is hoped to be one of the greenest manufacturing materials of the future. Space elevators are just the start of things, super efficient solar cells, super light vehicles and super smart pharmaceutical devices are all currently the subject of research. So, when you next hear of graphene just remember where you read about it first and maybe come back to be astonished again.