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Google X Tried To Build a Space Elevator with Carbon Nanotubes

Google X GOOG recently confirmed they were working on creating a space elevator, a cable attached to a satellite that sits tens of thousands of miles above Earth. The elevator would be built out of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and require less energy than a spacecraft, reducing the cost of space travel. Unfortunately, the project was put on “deep freeze.” Google realized that current fabrication techniques limit CNT length to less than a meter.

CNTs have held promise for a number of companies. Yet, initial excitement has turned into doubt.

Carbon nanotubes have properties that excite scientists. They are hundreds of times stronger than and one sixth the weight of steel, which is valuable for aerospace. Also, favorable conductive properties make them appealing for microprocessors.

That said, CNTs have a number of drawbacks. Certain types are cost prohibitive at hundreds of dollars1 per gram and are difficult to fabricate. Some researchers claim to have gotten around the latter hurdle2. Lastly, CNTs may be a respiratory hazard3.

Some companies and research organizations have given up on CNTs, while others are still hopeful. Bayer MaterialScience BAYN invested at least $30 million4 in a production lab for carbon nanotubes, but like Google it closed the project after finding limited applications. IBM IBM and the National Nanotechnology Initiative are still investing in CNTs. Products5 containing carbon nanotubes include coatings and conductive plastics, but a substantial market has not evolved. As with graphene, investors may have to wait years until CNTs commercialize.

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