My Thoughts on Technology and Jamaica: How Penn State’s Carbon Nanothreads made using Oak Ridge National Laboratory Pressure Cooker

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How Penn State’s Carbon Nanothreads made using Oak Ridge National Laboratory Pressure Cooker

“Because this thread is diamond at heart, we expect that it will prove to be extraordinarily stiff, extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily useful”

Chemistry professor John Badding at Penn State University discussing his team’s synthesis of Diamond Nanothread

Just when I thought I'd seen every possible use for Carbon atoms, yet another man-made material pops up.

Researchers at Penn State University led by Chemistry professor, Dr. John Badding, have developed a material called Diamond Nanothread as reported in the article “New 'Diamond nanothreads' may make Space elevator a reality”, published September 26, 2014 by Nick Statt, CNET News.

Their research was published in the Nature Materials Journal in September 2014, lays out a method by which they synthesized what may turn out to be the strongest man-made fiber on Earth.

It’s composed of Benzene rings that have reacted with each other so that the Carbon atoms form into the usual tetrahedral structure that gives diamond its hardness but in a thread-like structure 20,000 smaller than the human hair.

The properties were predicted by Chemistry professor, Dr. John Badding, based on previous high-pressure experiments with Benzene, quote: “It is as if an incredible jeweler has strung together the smallest possible diamonds into a long miniature necklace. Because this thread is diamond at heart, we expect that it will prove to be extraordinarily stiff, extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily useful.”

This means that this material extraordinarily stiff and strong like diamond at the nanoscopic level. If 20,000 such Diamond Nanothread fibers were braided together to make a strand as thick as a human hair, it would be a very strong material, possibly capable of lifting hundreds of pounds before breaking.

Dr. John Badding’s Diamond Nanothread – Badda’ dan Carbyne Fiber or CNT infused Spider Silk

This material sounds a lot like the theoretical Carbyne Fiber material made from carbyne molecules by graduate student Mingjie Liu and postdoctoral student Vasilii Artyukhov from Rice University as described in my blog article entitled “Researchers at Rice University investigate the Mechanical Properties of Carbyne Fibers - The Ultimate Spongebob Squarepants Superconducting USB 4.0 Cables that’ll replace Fiber Optic Thunderbolt”.

But unlike their Carbyne based polymer, this polymer is made from the high-pressure polymerization of Benzene molecules is apparently much stronger. 

In fact it may even be stronger than Carbon Nanotubes infused into spider silk based on the work of Dr. Emiliano Lepore and his team at the University of Trento in Trento, Italy as reported in my blog article entitled “University of Trento feeds Pholcidae spiders with Carbon nanotubes and graphene – Spider Silk Stronger than Kevlar suggests different mechanism for Synthetic Silk Production”.

It may potentially be able to create gigantic lightweight cables stretching into Outer Space, the so-called Space Elevator that has been a dream of Science Fiction and Space Scientists to quote Dr. John Badding: “One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a “Space elevator”, which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea. From a fundamental-science point of view, our discovery is intriguing because the threads we formed have a structure that has never been seen before”.

What's even more surprising is that this material was produced from benzene, which I've long suspected since my Glenmuir High School days of being able to undergoes more reactions than just using its Hydrogen atoms and Pi-Bond Electrons. So how did Dr. John Badding and his team fabricate this new heir to the strongest materials throne?

Penn State University’s Carbon Nanothreads – Pi-Bond Polymerization of Benzene is possible

The Researchers at Penn State University led by Chemistry professor, Dr. John Badding realized that the Benzene ring structure is stable thanks to the combination of Sigma Bonds and Pi-Bonds, even though not all the Valence electrons in the Outer shell of Carbon have been used during bonding.

In fact, in the Benzene ring, the extra electron that is not involved in any covalent bond is shared among the other Carbon atoms via the Pi-Bonds that exist above and below the plane of the Benzene ring.

Realizing from previous high-pressure experiments that this suggested that they could polymerize Benzene using those Pi-Bond electrons, they proceeded to make the Pi-Bonds reactive.

They did this by renting time at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to use their Paris-Edinburgh Pressure Cooker, hereby applying Energy in the form of air pressure to quote Co-author Dr. Malcolm Guthrie of the Carnegie Institution for Science: “We used the large high-pressure Paris-Edinburgh device at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to compress a 6-millimeter-wide amount of benzene – a gigantic amount compared with previous experiments”.

They placed a 6-millimeter wide pool of benzene into a Paris-Edinburgh Pressure Cooker at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and applied a huge amount of pressure at Room Temperature as explained in the article “Ultra-thin Nanothread Discovery Could Make Diamonds An Astronaut's Best Friend”, published 9/23/2014 by Brid-Aine Parnell, Forbes

The added pressure made the electrons in the Pi-Bonds, which are above and below the plane of the Sigma Bonds that make up the Benzene ring more reactive, opening up the Pi-Bonds and causing them to become more reactive.

But because of the added pressure which gave them more vibrational energy, they could not stay in one place long enough to react. What they then discovered next had me personally amazed.

How to make Carbon Nanothreads using Oak Ridge National Laboratory Pressure Cooker

The researchers, realizing that by now the Pi-Bonds must have broken apart the benzene ring's cohesion, slowly released the pressure inside of the Paris-Edinburgh Pressure Cooker at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The result is possibly the smallest diamond Necklace on Earth to quote Co-author Dr. Malcolm Guthrie of the Carnegie Institution for Science: “We discovered that slowly releasing the pressure after sufficient compression at normal room temperature gave the carbon atoms the time they needed to react with each other and to link up in a highly ordered chain of single-file carbon tetrahedrons, forming these diamond-core nanothreads.”

In much the same way ice forms in a bottle of very cold Coca-Cola when you screw open the bottle slowly, releasing the pressure, the benzene began to polymerize as the pressure was gradually reduced, Dewar Flask Style!

The unstable electrons in the Pi-Bonds reacting with the Pi bond electrons of another benzene ring above and below the plane of the stable Sigma Bonds. The result is that alternative carbon atoms reacted with other benzene rings above and below the plane of the Sigma Bonds, exactly where the Pi-Bonds are located. This resulted in tetrahedral arrangements consisting of three (3) Carbon atoms and one Hydrogen atom sticking outwards, all linked by Sigma Bonds.

The Sigma Bonds that made up the main plane of the Benzene ring remained intact, resulting in a hollow cylindrical like structure that looks a lot like a double helix the DNA (Deoxy Ribonucleic Acid) but much, much thinner and with no cross linkages aside from the pre-existing Sigma Bonds.

Good to note all this happens at Room Temperature, albeit it would be fair to say that the added vibration energy caused by the increased pressure may have cause a slight temperature increase within the Paris-Edinburgh Pressure Cooker.

Still, the polymerization that occurred was astounding, as it was totally unexpected and had never before been witnessed by scientists and physicists alike, to quote Dr. John Badding: “It really is surprising that this kind of organization happens.  “That the atoms of the benzene molecules link themselves together at room temperature to make a thread is shocking to chemists and physicists. Considering earlier experiments, we think that, when the benzene molecule breaks under very high pressure, its atoms want to grab onto something else but they can’t move around because the pressure removes all the space between them. This benzene then becomes highly reactive so that, when we release the pressure very slowly, an orderly polymerisation reaction happens that forms the diamond-core nanothread”.

Applications of Diamond Nanothreads -  Japanese Obayashi wants Space Elevators by 2050

Space Elevators are the most obvious application that readily comes to mind albeit many others abound.

Already a Japanese firm Obayashi plans to use such lightweight material based on Carbon such as CNT (Carbon Nanotubes) and possibly this new Diamond Nanothread to make 60,000 miles (96,000 km) long cables that can stretch into Space to make a Space elevator as reported in the article “Elevator into Space: Japanese Firm determined to Proceed with Bold Enginering Project”, published September 23, 2014 by Trevor Mogg, DigitalTrends.  

The idea is blessedly simple. First, they’d launch a satellite into geo-stationary orbit with a manned crew onboard.

Then they'd shoot a pontoon towards Earth with a one end attached to a very long spool of rope made of CNT lowering it though the atmosphere until it reached to the location where the engineers would attach it to the ground. Several more cables later, the Space Elevator would be established at 22,400 miles (36,000 km) above Earth.

A Space Elevator using Maglev elevators similar to those designed by ThyssenKrupp Elevator as described in my MICO Wars Blog article entitled “ThyssenKrupp Elevator develops
MULTI, a Multi-Dimensional Travel Maglev by 2016” would make going into Outer Space very easy, reducing and eventually eliminating the need to launch rockets into Space.

It would greatly increase the amount of payload that can be lifted into Space, even allowing untrained individuals to go into Outer Space without the need for Training like regular Astronauts.

Space tourism for the Masses, basically!

Current technology to fabricate ropes made from CNT's can only make ropes that are 3cm long to quote research and development manager at Obayashi, Yoji Ishikawa: “Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-cm-long nanotubes, but we need much more. We think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it”.

This is the same problem Diamond Nanothread also faces, as it cannot be readily fabricated into long spools of fiber as theirs is Laboratory process not a large-scale Manufacturing one to quote Dr. John Badding: “The high pressures that we used to make the first diamond nanothread material limit our production capacity to only a couple of cubic millimetres at a time, so we are not yet making enough of it to be useful on an industrial scale. One of our science goals is to remove that limitation by figuring out the chemistry necessary to make these diamond nanothreads under more practical conditions.”

Obayashi will probably develope a method to make miles and miles of lightweight and super-strong CNT by 2030 to build their Space Elevator by 2050. But with this latest discovery of Diamond Nanothreads, an alternative material now exists that my potentially be even stronger and lighter than CNT and may also have other unknown properties, such as super-conductivity.

For now, I'd really like to use this to make a really great necklace, a bullet proof dress or an incredible chainsaw that can cut through any material in seconds.

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