Monday, April 10, 2006

Up and coming technology

After that overly syrupy message I just wrote, it's time to use the other half of my brain and assert my nerdy side.

You would have to have been sleeping for the last fifty years to not notice that technology is running along at a break-neck pace. What are some of the next trends? What is in the research laboratories? There are a bunch of things, but I'll stick with one for now.

Has anyone heard of nanotubes? How about buckyballs? What are we going to do with them?

First, some background.

Not too long ago, someone postulated that 60 carbon atoms could be put together like a little soccer ball. It wasn't too long after that that someone actually figured out how to make them. Also, it turns out that they are often made naturally.

They are called buckyballs after R. Buckminster Fuller (Bucky Fuller), the inventor of the geodesic dome. That's because they are put together like a geodesic dome.

It stands to reason that the little C60 molecules are strong, since carbon bonds are strong, and they are put into a geodesic dome configuration.

Now, take some buckyballs, kind of unwrap them a bit, and roll them into a tube. This is called a nanotube. It is actually a tube of standard graphite.

Let's back up a bit again.

Graphite consists of a bunch of layers of carbon arrayed like chicken wire (hexagonal). If you take a strip of that and roll it up, you have a nanotube. Nanotubes come in a variety of diameters and configurations. The 'chicken wire' can be wrapped at a variety of angles.

So what's so special about this stuff?

Several things, actually. The biggest one is that it has the highest tensile strength of any substance yet discovered or invented. In fact, they want to use a ribbon of it to stretch from the equator up to and beyond geostationary orbit (some 22,300 miles up -- where you find the communication satellites). It's an old idea, but it's only recently that anyone has actually found something strong enough to pull it off.

This ribbon up into orbit is called a space elevator, or a beanstalk.

But what about earthly uses for this stuff?

The first items to be made with nanotubes will probably be things like tennis rackets and golf club handles. That's because people who are into sports are often willing to pay lots of bucks for anything that will improve their performance.

Later, we'll see things like car bodies and toys and laptop computer cases made out of nanotubes.

Actually, they will be made out of a composite of nanotubes with something else. Anywhere you see graphite composites used (fighter jets, fishing rods, etc.) will be a prime place for nanotubes. How would you like a five pound canoe? How about a bullet-proof vest that actually works and isn't all that bulky? Anything that you want to make lighter and stronger will benefit from nanotubes.

But that isn't all.

Properly doped, nanotubes act as semiconductors. In the future, electronics made from nanotubes will be small, fast, and efficient. Light emitting diodes made from nanotubes can be very efficient -- beating even fluorescent and mercury vapor lamps.

But don't buy now! There's more.

One specific configuration actually works very similar to a superconductor. It isn't a superconductor, but it's close. The resistance is independent of the length. The only energy loss is due to some coupling losses at the ends of the conductor. That means that you can put the much-touted solar power satellites up into geostationary orbit, and pipe the power down through a special beanstalk rather than using big microwave transmitters and rectenna arrays that use up a few square miles of land.

Down here, power lines can be replaced with the stuff. No more line losses. Motors can be wound with nanotube conductors for added efficiency and reduced heat. The list goes on.

By the way, another form of carbon is a three-dimensional crystalline structure. This stuff is clear and conducts heat very well. Until a few months ago, it was the hardest substance known.

Yep, I'm talking about diamonds.

Wait a minute! Used to be the strongest substance known?

Recently someone took a bunch of buckyballs, gave them the heat and pressure treatment, and made a substance harder than diamond. If they can figure out how to coat things with this stuff, we'll have some really mar-proof surfaces.

Can you think of some more uses for buckyballs, nanotubes, and the new buckyball harder-than-diamond stuff? Post away!


Anonymous denise t said...

will it be able to be recycled?

7:54 PM  
Blogger Nerd in the Country said...

The nanotubes themselves will be able to be recycled. The details depend on the product itself. If they are short whiskers mixed with glass, metal, or thermoplastic (plastic that can be melted), standard techniques can be used. In other cases, they can be extracted from the original binder by something like thermol depolymerization (that new process that turns all kinds of junk into oil, sterile water, and mineral residue).

One of the best things about nanotube-based products, though, is the fact that they are very durable. Recycling is good, but reusing is better.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

use it for any thing an adhder gets in contact with...
MY son smashed his indestructable "tonKa Trucks"
when he was 5.
Fisher Price ended up telling me that a week with Jani is a Year with any other child so i could only replace it once because it was broken....
ment we had duplo and balls....
Books, books and more books.

also a car for me... keep getting destracted (mainly hit the house.... go figure)

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ray, this is a lot for a brain to gather...
lots of ummm scientific words for an unscientific mind.

6:45 AM  

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