Carbon nanotubes offer smashing answer to space debris problem

6 Sep 2016

By smashing a series of carbon nanotubes together at high speed, researchers have found that its resulting nanodiamond creation could be used to make spacecraft much stronger than they are today.

While this new breakthrough might sound like the researchers are on to a potential fortune, the resulting nanodiamond is much more beneficial for its strength, rather than any financial benefit.

Developed by researchers from Rice University in the US, the material was created by smashing microscopic carbon nanotubes against a target at high speeds, changing the entire fabric of its atomic bonds.

Future Human

When this occurs, the nanotubes break and often recombine into different structures and, in this case, the team has created powerful nanodiamonds.

Publishing its findings in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, the researchers explained that they achieved this by packing the carbon nanotubes into spherical pellets and firing them at an aluminium target.

‘Opens a new way to make nanosize materials’

At a low velocity of 3.9km per second (kps), most of the nanotubes remained intact but at a hypervelocity of 6.9kps almost all of the nanotubes split into nanoribbons.

With this newfound knowledge of the arrangement of atomic bonds of nanotubes, scientists can begin looking at developing lightweight materials for a multitude of uses, including in space.

“Satellites and spacecraft are at risk of various destructive projectiles, such as micrometeorites and orbital debris,” said co-lead author of the study, Sehmus Ozden.

“To avoid this kind of destructive damage, we need lightweight, flexible materials with extraordinary mechanical properties. Carbon nanotubes can offer a real solution.”

Adding to this, the study’s other co-lead author, Leonardo Machado, said of this breakthrough’s future developments: “The current work opens a new way to make nanosize materials using high-velocity impact.”

Space debris image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic