Stairway to Heaven

Physicist Brad Edwards

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.  

That potential has not gone unnoticed. In fact, at first glance it would seem that Carbon Designs is entering an already-crowded field. Dozens of companies are working to exploit the commercial potential of carbon nanotubes, including a Houston company founded by Smalley. Samsung and Mitsubishi are bringing nanotube-based electronics to market, and nanotubes can already be found as additives in high-priced hockey sticks and baseball bats. In fact, as of last month 293 nanotube-related patents had been issued by the U.S. patent office.

So what makes Carbon Designs different? Part of it is that Edwards will concentrate on making a super-high-strength material completely out of nanotubes. Most others are focused on either the nanotubes' conductive properties or on blending them with existing materials.

Carbon Designs' main advantage, however, is money. Often, research labs spend much of their time searching for funding. "You can go get $100,000 here, $150,000 there, to fund whatever it is you're working on, but it doesn't come in by the millions," Waller says. "Four million pure R&D dollars over 18 months is pretty concentrated money."

That money will go to two of the country's leading labs, one at Los Alamos and the other at the University of Kentucky, with Edwards shuttling back and forth. Within two years, Carbon Designs hopes to have its product available for use in everything from golf clubs to body armor.

While no one doubts the commercial value of nanotubes, some do question Edwards' timetable of 15 years for the space elevator. Ray Baughman of the Nanotechnology Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas has done groundbreaking work with nanotubes, including producing threads that approach the strength of steel. Baughman says that even tripling the strength of steel would be "an enormous step forward." As for hitting Edwards' target of 30 times the strength of steel within two years, Baughman chuckles. "We can debate that," he says. "Certainly Brad is a visionary in terms of thinking not only of today but into the far future. I'm very, very happy that Carbon Designs is coming to Dallas."

Even elevator believers are cautious. "We haven't even asked all the questions yet, let alone provided all the answers," says Seattle entrepreneur Michael Laine. He formed a company with Edwards in Seattle to develop elevator technologies. Edwards left to work for a more established lab in 2003, but Laine's company, LiftPort Inc., still has a ticking 15-year countdown timer on its Web site. LiftPort's main focus is building the robot lifter that will climb into space, a task Laine summarizes like this: "Try building a car that's going to drive around the planet, about 20,000 miles, without refueling, without changing its tires and without stopping."

If anyone can solve the problem of the tether, however, Laine still believes it will be Edwards. "I can't think of a better guy than Brad," Laine says. In fact, Laine echoes Waller virtually word for word in describing Edwards: "He's the smartest guy I've ever known." --Rick Kennedy

Round 2 at Cabell
The president of Cabell Elementary's PTA says she'll remove her kids next year if the current principal, Marcell Archer, remains.

"My son says it's just a really depressing school," says Jodi Beltran, the PTA president. "The school is so divided."

Is it ever. On this side are Archer and her supporters, mostly teachers--a minority of teachers, some claim--who three weeks ago circulated a petition that said Archer was doing a fine job. On that side are other Cabell teachers and parents, who said Archer's not doing a fine job and told the Dallas Observer about it ("Sinner or Saint" April 21).

Beltran says she heard from teachers who say they were coerced into signing the petition, which circulated because of the Observer's inquiries about Archer "terrorizing the staff," as one Cabell teacher put it.

But it's more than this petition. "The children are not happy," Beltran says. She says the school's acrimony is a result of Archer's leadership style.

Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Gwender Lias-Baskett is a language arts and social studies teacher at Cabell who decided to pass around the petition. "I'm not afraid to stand up and speak for what's right," she says. The Observer's previous article "grieved my spirit," Lias-Baskett says, with its "vindictiveness."  

She says no teachers were coerced into signing the petition. How many signed it? "I don't think it's important," Lias-Baskett says. (Vickie Mitchell, the area superintendent overseeing Cabell, says eight teachers originally approached her asking to circulate a petition on campus.) What about the rumor that some parents were asked to sign? Lias-Baskett at first told us that some parents' names were on the list but that they weren't coerced. Days later, Lias-Baskett said no parents' names were on the list.

As for Archer herself, she doesn't want to talk. "I am not going to do this again," she says. "You better be very careful from here on out in dogging me," she says. --Paul Kix

Now Hear This
When she was but a year old, in 1976, Kimby Caplan was diagnosed as deaf. Her father recalls that upon receiving the news, he thought to himself, "We'd have to throw her away--she wasn't any good anymore." He jokes, of course; his daughter, now 30, likes to say it was her old man's sense of humor that kept the family together, just before it blew apart. But the image of a child (a baby doll, actually) being tossed into the garbage pail appears repeatedly in Caplan's just-completed documentary Listen, which chronicles her lifelong struggle to exist as a deaf person in a hearing world, without use of sign language.

Caplan--who studied experimental filmmaking at the University of Colorado, under famed director Stan Brakhage, and just completed her master's degree at Southern Methodist University--was long ago fully "mainstreamed," thanks to Doreen Pollack, who pioneered the use of hearing aids in 1-year-olds. Listen, which has screened at several film fests and makes its Dallas debut May 17 at a special screening on the SMU campus, is as much an educational doc about Pollack's work in the "auditory-verbal" field as it is a moving film about Caplan's parents, who she always believed divorced because of their baby girl's diagnosis.

"I had some very simple questions I had never thought to ask my parents," says Caplan, speaking from her cell phone. "Why don't I have any deaf friends? Why don't I know sign language? I had never asked, 'Do you think my hearing loss caused the divorce?' They were basic things you'd think someone would know, but since I was entirely mainstreamed, they're not questions I thought of. It never occurred to me to question the historical or emotional background of how I got here."

The movie's part autobiography and part history of Pollack's work, including archival footage of Pollack working with Caplan when she was a little girl; also seen are clips from a 1972 panel featuring some of Pollack's first students, who will be the subject of Caplan's next film. For the moment, though, it will wait: Caplan leaves Dallas in July for the American Film Institute, where she will study cinematography.

"I want people to understand how the hearing-impaired were raised without learning sign language, and how the deaf think the world's against them and they build these walls, and how the hearing are so high and mighty they don't have to worry about these things," Caplan says. "After all, here's someone with a hearing loss, but her parents worked hard, and she did, too. It's not the end of the world." --Robert Wilonsky

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