The Future of Space: A Space Elevator by 2050?

space_elevatorIn the ongoing effort to ensure humanity has a future offworld, it seems that another major company has thrown its hat into the ring. This time, its the Japanese construction giant Obayashi that’s declared its interest in building a Space Elevator, a feat which it plans to have it up and running by the year 2050. If successful, it would make space travel easier and more accessible, and revolutionize the world economy.

This is just the latest proposal to build an elevator in the coming decades, using both existing and emerging technology. Obayashi’s plan calls for a tether that will reach 96,000 kilometers into space, with robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors that will carry people and cargo to a newly-built space station. The estimated travel time will take 7 days, and will cost a fraction of what it currently takes to bring people to the ISS using rockets.

space_elevator_liftThe company said the fantasy can now become a reality because of the development of carbon nanotechnology. As Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, explained:

The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it’s possible. Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more… we think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.

Once considered the realm of science fiction, the concept is fast becoming a possibility. A major international study in 2012 concluded the space elevator was feasible, but best achieved with international co-operation. Since that time, Universities all over Japan have been working on the engineering problems, and every year they hold competitions to share their suggestions and learn from each other.

space_elevator3Experts have claimed the space elevator could signal the end of Earth-based rockets which are hugely expensive and dangerous. Compared to space shuttles, which cost about $22,000 per kilogram to take cargo into space, the Space Elevator can do it for around $200. It’s also believed that having one operational could help solve the world’s power problems by delivering huge amounts of solar power. It would also be a boon for space tourism.

Constructing the Space Elevator would allow small rockets to be housed and launched from stations in space without the need for massive amounts of fuel required to break the Earth’s gravitational pull. Obayashi is working on cars that will carry 30 people up the elevator, so it may not be too long before the Moon is the next must-see tourist destination. They are joined by a team at Kanagawa University that have been working on robotic cars or climbers.

graphene_ribbonsAnd one of the greatest issues – the development of a tether that can withstand the weight and tension of stresses of reaching into orbit – may be closer to being solved than previously thought. While the development of carbon nanotubes has certainly been a shot in the arm for those contemplating the space elevator’s tether, this material is not quite strong enough to do the job itself.

Luckily, a team working out of Penn State University have created something that just might. Led by chemistry professor John Badding, the team has created a “diamond nanothread” – a thread composed of carbon atoms that measures one-twenty-thousands the diameter of a single strand of human hair, and which may prove to be the strongest man-made material in the universe.

diamond_nanothreadAt the heart of the thread is a never-before-seen structure resembling the hexagonal rings of bonded carbon atoms that make up diamonds, the hardest known mineral in existence. That makes these nanothreads potentially stronger and more resilient than the most advanced carbon nanotubes, which are similar super-durable and super-light structures composed of rolled up, one atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene.

Graphene and carbon nanotubes are already ushering in stunning advancements in the fields of electronics, energy storage and even medicine. This new discovery of diamond nanothreads, if they prove to be stronger than existing materials, could accelerate this process even further and revolutionize the development of electronics vehicles, batteries, touchscreens, solar cells, and nanocomposities.

space_elevator2But by far the most ambitious possibility offered is that of a durable cable that could send humans to space without the need of rockets. As John Badding said in a statement:

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,

At this juncture, and given the immense cost and international commitment required to built it, 2050 seems like a reasonable estimate for creating a Space Elevator. However, other groups hope to see this goal become a reality sooner. The  International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) for example, thinks one could be built by 2035 using existing technology. And several assessments indicate that a Lunar Elevator would be far more feasible in the meantime.

Come what may, it is clear that the future of space exploration will require us to think bigger and bolder if we’re going to secure our future as a “space-faring” race. And be sure to check out these videos from Penn State and the Obayashi Corp:

John Badding and the Nanodiamond Thread:

Obayashi and the 2050 Space Elevator:


The Future of Building: Superefficient Nanomaterials

carbon-nanotubeToday, we are on the verge of a fabrication revolution. Thanks to developments in nanofabrication and miniaturization, where materials can be fashioned down the cellular (or even atomic) level, the option of making bigger and stronger structures that happen to weight less is becoming a reality. This is the goal of materials scientist Julia Greer and her research lab at Caltech.

As an example, Greer offers the The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Eiffel Tower. The former is 174 meters tall and weighs 10 megatons while the latter is over twice that height, but at five and half kilotons is one-tenth the mass. It all comes down to the “elements of architecture”, which allowed the Eiffel Tower to be stronger and more lightweight while using far less materials.

carbon_nanotube2Whereas the pyramids are four solid walls, the Eiffel Tower is skeletal, and vastly more efficient as a result. Greer and her colleagues are trying to make the same sort of leap on a nano scale, engineering hollow materials that are fantastically lightweight while remaining every bit as stiff and strong. Carbon nanotubes are one such example, but the range of possibilities are immense and due to explode in the near future.

The applications for this “Hierarchical Design” are also myriad, but its impact could be profound. For one, these ultralight wonders offer a chance to drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, allowing us to make familiar goods with less raw stuff. But they also could also expand our idea of what’s possible with material science, opening doors to designs that are inconceivable today.

It’s all here on this video, where Greer explains Hierarchical Design and the possibilities it offers below:


Ending Cancer: “Canary” and Microscopic Velcro

cancer_cellEnding terminal illness is one of the hallmarks of the 21st century, with advances being made all the time. In recent years, efforts have been particularly focused on findings treatments and cures for the two greatest plagues of the past 100 years – HIV and cancer. But whereas HIV is one of the most infectious diseases to ever be observed, cancer is by far the greater killer. In 2008 alone, approximately 12.7 million cancers were diagnosed (excluding non-invasive cancers) and 7.6 million people died of cancer worldwide.

Little wonder then why so much time and energy is dedicated to ending it; and in recent years, a number of these initiatives have begun to bear fruit. One such initiative comes from the Mayo Clinic, where researchers claim they have developed a new type of software that can help classify cancerous lung nodules noninvasively, thus saving lives and health care costs.

lung-cancer-treatmentIt’s called Computer-aided Nodule Assessment and Risk Yield, or Canary, and a pilot study of the software recently appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. According to the article, Canary uses data from high-resolution CT images of a common type of cancerous nodule in the lung and then matches them, pixel for pixel, to one of nine unique radiological exemplars. In this way, the software is able to make detailed comparisons and then determine whether or not the scans indicate the presence of cancer.

In the pilot study, Canary was able to classify lesions as either aggressive or indolent with high sensitivity, as compared to microscopic analyses of the lesions after being surgically removed and analyzed by lung pathologists. More importantly, it was able to do so without the need for internal surgery to allow a doctor to make a visual examination. This not only ensures that a patient could receive and early (and accurate) diagnosis from a simple CT scan, but also saves a great deal of money by making surgery unnecessary.

velcroAs they say, early detection is key. But where preventative medicine fails, effective treatments need to be available. And that’s where a new invention, inspired by Velcro comes into play. Created by researchers at UCLA, the process is essentially a refined method of capturing and analyzing rogue cancer cells using a Velcro-like technology that works on the nanoscale. It’s called NanoVelcro, and it can detect, isolate, and analyze single cancer cells from a patient’s blood.

Researchers have long recognized that circulating tumor cells play an important role in spreading cancer to other parts of the body. When the cells can be analyzed and identified early, they can offer clues to how the disease may progress in an individual patient, and how to best tailor a personalized cancer treatment. The UCLA team developed the NanoVelcro chip (see above) to do just that, trap individual cancer cells for analysis so that early, non-invasive diagnosis can take place.

NanoVelcro-deviceThe treatment begins with a patient’s blood being pumped in through the NanoVelcro Chip, where tiny hairs protruding from the cancer cells stick to the nanofiber structures on the device’s surface. Then, the scientists selectively cut out the cancer cells using laser microdissection and subject the isolated and purified cancer cells to single cell sequencing. This last step reveals mutations in the genetic material of the cells and may help doctors personalize therapies to the patient’s unique form of cancer.

The UCLA researchers say this technology may function as a liquid biopsy. Instead of removing tissue samples through a needle inserted into a solid tumor, the cancer cells can be analyzed directly from the blood stream, making analysis quicker and easier. They claim this is especially important in cancers like prostate, where biopsies are extremely difficult because the disease often spreads to bone, where the availability of the tissue is low. In addition, the technology lets doctors look at free-floating cancer cells earlier than they’d have access to a biopsy site.

Already, the chip is being tested in prostate cancer, according to research published in the journal Advanced Materials in late March. The process is also being tested by Swiss researchers to remove heavy metals from water, using nanomaterials to cling to and remove impurities like mercury and heavy metals. So in addition to assisting in the war on cancer, this new technology showcases the possibilities of nantechnology and the progress being made in that field.