Carbon Nanotubes Can’t Handle a Space Elevator

According to new research, one flat could ruin the whole thing. Bummer.
When Were We Promised It: A Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first conceived the concept of a space elevator in 1895, but obviously no one took the idea seriously until after Sputnik. Only marginally more feasible in 1965 than it in 1895, the space elevator idea gathered dust until the popularization of carbon nanotubes in 1991 provided a light, high strength material to serve as the tether for a space elevator. What's the Hold Up: Once again, it's all about the Benjamins. When countries established an infrastructure for the rocket delivery of payloads, it simply didn't pay to invest in a space elevator. Private companies attempted to pick up the slack, but a business model that doesn't promise returns for decades didn't attract a gaggle of investors. Last year, Liftport, a private space elevator company that had proved its concept by running a robot a mile into the sky along a carbon ribbon, went out of business. When Can I Get One: NASA continues to fund a number of prizes related to space elevators, but don't expect to get off at the 50,000th floor in the next couple of decades. John MacNeill

Alright, space elevator plans are back to square one, people. Carbon nanotubes probably aren’t going to be our material solution for a space elevator, because apparently even a minuscule (read: atomic) flaw in the design drastically decreases strength.

Researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute figured out that even a single atom out of place in the structuring of a carbon nanotube reduces the strength of the structure by dozens to factors.

And that’s a serious problem, since it’s very hard to create large-scale sections of carbon nanotubes without a single flaw.

Obviously, ensuring that a space-elevator sized volume of carbon nanotubes is totally flawless would take…well, it would be rather time consuming.

So either current production processes need drastic improvement, or we need a new strategy for this elevator.

Either way, back to square one.

[H/T New Scientist]