Stairway to Heaven

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Stairway to Heaven
For high-tech designers, all that glitters is carbon

It was a given that when Brad Edwards got up to speak that day in March 2002, the crowd would be skeptical. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is home to many of the country's most distinguished physicists and chemists, and Edwards knew his words would be subject to scientific scrutiny. In addition, to many in the audience, Edwards at 38 still looked like a kid, though he had earned his doctorate in physics more than a decade before. Even worse was the topic Edwards would discuss: an elevator into space, a project that the best minds in the field had dismissed as centuries away--but Edwards wanted to do it in 15 years.

"You could tell immediately that some of the people had come in to heckle," Edwards recalls. His pitch was greeted with shaking heads and snorts of derision, and he was constantly interrupted by scientists pointing out the obvious, even glaring errors in his reasoning. Edwards kept his cool, assuring the skeptics that he would cover all their questions. "As the talk went on, the tone began to change," Edwards says. "Now they're listening very intently, asking very courteously."

By the time Edwards had finished presenting the results of his NASA-funded research, he says, the brightest lights in American astrophysics "weren't asking questions anymore." Instead, they were babbling excitedly about all the new science a space elevator would allow. Edwards was deluged with congratulations--and offers of collaboration.

Now, at last, investors are following suit. Roughly 25 of them, led by Southlake entrepreneur Brent Waller, are bankrolling Edwards' ideas to the tune of $5 million. Edwards will head Carbon Designs Inc., a start-up company in the process of moving to Dallas. But don't go thinking his backers are a bunch of rich Trekkies. They believe the road to the elevator will be paved with lucrative innovations and patents, and Edwards has two years to prove them right--or wrong.

"One of our investors asked me, 'What's the worst-case scenario?'" Waller says. "I told him, 'The worst-case scenario is that you'll lose all your money.'"

The best-case scenario is considerably more promising, and it's all about carbon nanotubes. Nanotubes are tiny modified molecules of Herculean toughness that most analysts see as the material of the future. As an additive to existing carbon composites, the market for nanotubes will reach $231.5 million next year, according to one estimate.

The key component of the space elevator is the tether, the strand of super-strong ribbon that lifters will climb to an orbiting satellite. The strand would have to be more than 20,000 miles long to reach geosynchronous orbit and would be subjected to incredible strain from wind, weather and even space debris. Only an ultralight material 30 times stronger than steel can handle the job, and Edwards believes nanotubes are the answer. As an additive, they're promising, but a material made entirely of the tubes as Edwards envisions could spark an industrial revolution. In 15 years, the market for nano-materials could reach $90 billion. That potential is what lets Edwards' backers sleep at night, but their dreams are of a space elevator.

The imaginative appeal of a permanent stairway to the stars has been apparent ever since the idea was first popularized by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in 1978. Such a system would reduce the cost of escaping Earth's gravity by a factor of 10, finally making space accessible to the masses. Giant panels to gather solar energy above the atmosphere could be economically deployed. Interplanetary spacecraft could be assembled in orbit. Such possibilities are a lot more stirring than, say, the strongest golf club in the history of the world--but carbon nanotubes may lead to both.

The history of carbon nanotubes began in 1985, by accident. Richard Smalley, a chemistry professor at Rice University, was blasting graphite with a laser to form carbon atom chains, but it wasn't working. The atoms just wouldn't line up. Instead of forming lines, the atoms had bonded, 60 at a time, into 20-sided spheroids like tiny soccer balls. It wasn't the first time these puzzling structures had been seen, but Smalley's genius was to recognize the apparent failure as a giant leap forward.

Smalley had created the third stable form of carbon, the other two being graphite and diamond. But with the same geodesic shape that architect Buckminster Fuller had first used in the 1950s to create virtually indestructible architectural domes, this form was far stronger than its brethren. In a generous gesture, Smalley named the molecule the "buckminsterfullerene," which for obvious reasons was shortened to "fullerene" or, even better, "buckyball."

The discovery eventually won Smalley the Nobel Prize. Building on Smalley's work, in 1991 Sumio Iijima of Japanese company NEC found that two buckyballs at each end of a molecular carbon cylinder would form immensely strong tubes better suited for building blocks than the balls themselves. The tubes are invisible to the naked eye and are so small that even in an electron microscope image they appear as tiny hairs. But tests suggest that the tubes could be up to 100 times stronger than steel, with only one-sixth of the weight. Nanotubes also have remarkable electromagnetic properties, making their potential uses almost limitless.

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