Super-Strong Diamond Nanothread Has People Dreaming Of A Space Elevator

The molecular structure of diamond nanothread (DNT). John Badding Lab / Penn State University

Diamonds are supposedly a girl’s best friend, and soon they might be the best friend of any engineer looking for a material stronger than carbon nanotubes and graphene. A new microscopic structure, called diamond nanothread (DNT), shows the potential to revolutionize material science.

A team from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia modeled the properties of this DNT and found that the length of the thread doesn’t significantly affect its strength. The results are presented in a paper uploaded to ArXiv.

This, understandably, has people imagining futuristic structures that could transport people and cargo into space with relative ease: space elevators. "If the new models turn out to be correct, this material could have a bright future in all sorts of applications, from nanotechnology to electronics to yes, maybe even space elevators," said Gizmodo, while Motherboard added: "The new simulation, published earlier this month, has reinvigorated hope about the promising aerospace properties of what might be the world’s strongest substance."

While that sounds exciting, don't get too carried away just yet. The material has only been produced at a length of 90 nanometers, so there is still a long way to go before anything like this comes to fruition. Although we are not yet ready to produce meter-long DNT (let alone the hundreds of kilometers needed for a space elevator), the technology could be used to produce highly durable three-dimensional nano-architectures. 

The DNT is formed by putting benzene molecules (a by-product of fossil fuel combustion) under very high pressure, which changes the two-dimensional ring structure into a three-dimensional diamond-like crystal. The diamond-like structure not only makes the nanothread strong, it also makes it ultra-light and very ductile.

Every type of DNT has a very high Young’s modulus, the measurement of how much force is needed to stretch or compress. The value for the strongest type of DNT is around 900 gigapascal (1 GPa is about 10,000 atmospheres); for comparison, the Young’s modulus for steel is 200 GPa and for diamond is over 1,200 GPa.

DNTs are made of carbon and hydrogen, and based on how they perform under stress, scientists believe they could be a better alternative in material science than carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes have many potential technological applications but, for better or worse, their development is constantly linked to the idea of building a space elevator. The longest carbon nanotube produced is not even half a meter (1.5 feet), but if the properties of DNT hold to longer lengths, they could make the dream slightly more real.

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