A new dimension for carbon

Humble carbon is wonderful stuff. The element is abundant in countless forms around the world, and has been used in any number of mixtures, alloys, and on its own, from pencils to penicillin, from oils to aeroplanes.

It is also the fourth most common element around the universe, and is found in stars, planets and pretty well everywhere else, too. Now, researchers have used carbon nanotubes to create a new propulsion system that will take us, or at least some micro-satellites, far beyond known limits of space.

A team at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have pioneered the use of carbon nanotubes as a propulsion system. The nanotubes are tiny, rolled up lattices of carbon atoms. By getting the tubes to emit electrons, they generate (tiny) amounts of energy. These tiny amounts add up if there’s little resistance. This is great news for the space industry, where satellites operate in near-vacuum conditions.

Using arrays of these carbon nanotube generators means they can operate at lower temperatures and use less power. This is also of interest to Earth-based developers, as any technology that saves on energy is worth looking into.

It may seem far off for now, but with Foster + Partners presenting their ideas for 3D printed moon dwellings and space-based living becoming more likely, we are keeping an eye on all carbon evolution.

Meanwhile, carbon is also finding the limelight in its latest hot from in the shape of graphene, the so-called wonder material that is incredibly strong but only one atom thick – which we can now make in our kitchens.

All these advances help in ways we can’t imagine yet. Nanotubes and graphene are excellent conductors, and with the tiny sizes that GTRI have developed, we could be seeing advances in clothing, computing and who knows what else, inspired by this new carbon dimension.