Nano skyscrapers may precede space elevator

The carbon nanotubes central to building an space elevator could have more practical and immediate applications.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
BURLINGAME, Calif.--Galactic transportation is only part of the plan, Liftport Group president Michael Laine said at the Foresight Nanotechnology Conference here on Tuesday.

Liftport, a space-infrastucture company, has been among those who support construction of a space elevator, a long thin cable made of carbon nanotubes anchored to a platform or ship at sea and extending out into space. Held in place by the earth's rotation, the space elevator, with the help of robots, would ferry materials to outer space.

The carbon nanotube ribbon that is central to building an elevator to space will actually have more practical and immediate applications, Laine said.

"Way before you see an elevator climbing into the sky, you are going to see buildings and bridges built in an entirely new way," Laine said here. "The thing is a lot closer to a bridge-type project than an aerospace project."

The ribbon for the elevator will be "about 8 inches wide, paper thin and thousands of miles long," said Laine.

Those dimensions have caused skeptics such as famed physicist Freeman Dyson to theorize that a space elevator, if built, will be somewhat dangerous. It could rip, some have speculated, or get attacked.

Others have more practical concerns: How much stuff, they ask, do we really need to send to outer space?

But the project is expected to lead to other discoveries, as many large infrastructure projects do. For instance, the diseases that many contracted during the building of the Panama Canal prompted research that helped greatly advance the field of tropical medicine and vaccines, Laine asserted.

One of the benefits of the space elevator could be that engineers learn how to exploit and manufacture carbon nanotubes on a large scale. Carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel but presently are made in small batches in laboratory furnaces.

"A span of a bridge is never going to be an issue again. It is going to be a question of economics rather than structural materials," he said. "We know there will be long, strong string. That will be inevitable."

Other possible nearer-term applications involve new types of cellular antennas or high-altitude traffic monitoring devices kept aloft in a long ribbon.

"Three years ago we were openly ridiculed, but now we are less ridiculed," Laine said.

Newfangled as can be, the space elevator owes some of its heritage to the ancients, he said. To build a space elevator, rockets would be sent into outer space to begin spooling out the carbon ribbon.

"This is the same concept the ancient Romans used for building a bridge. They'd take an arrow with a string attached to it and shoot it across a canyon. Then they'd shoot another and another," Laine said.