Carbon nanotube technology has made space elevators technically feasible (Credit: Nasa)

Build a space elevator to inspire a generation says expert

Building a space elevator would demonstrate advances in materials science and inspire a generation, according to an expert.

While the idea is more than a century old, carbon nanotube technology has made the feat at least theoretically possible and such a project could highlight the unique properties of carbon-based materials, which the Professor of Materials and Society at UCL says are the building blocks of the future.

“We need some big really outstanding projects to get people excited,” he said. “Landing on the moon was one of them and we need another one. Space elevators are there.”

Delivering the keynote address at the Royal Academy of Engineering's Innovation in Materials event yesterday, Miodownik said it was important to break down the barriers between material developers and end users of their products such as designers, architects, doctors and chefs.

“One of the big challenges is linking all the scales together,” he said. “All these people need to be part of this project. If we don't have them in there you aren't going to produce the solutions they are going to want to use and accept.”

According to Miodownik, with the advent of ultra-high performance materials like graphene and new design processes such as additive manufacturing and synthetic biology, manufacturers will soon be able to customise the properties of their raw ingredients.

Professor Mark Miodownik “It's no accident the ages of civilisation are named after materials,” he said. “The real innovation of the 20th Century is working out how they work and why they work so well.”

Bill O'Neil, Professor of Laser Engineering at the University of Cambridge, highlighted the role additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, could play in accelerating the development of new materials.

“The technologies are just the delivery system and they are really simple. It's the materials that are important,” he said. “We have to go beyond form, as we have done it for the last 30 years, and move towards function and form because that's really where the power of this technology lies.”

Current additive manufacturing processes have already seen the development of high performance polymers, with customisable features, and research is being carried out into self-organising materials that can alter their shape after printing.

But ultimately O'Neil believes the true potential of the technology will not be realised until researchers move away from the cumulative layering approach and create multi-material machines.

According to Dr Tom Ellis of Imperial College London, the rapid unravelling of the “source code for life”, DNA, coupled with the plummeting cost of sequencing and synthesising it, is making synthetic biology another promising avenue for materials development.

Researchers in the field are trying to move from the bespoke but untranslatable science of genetic engineering to a standardised, modular framework with design rules and a commitment to open source principles.

Using the principles of synthetic biology, well-understood DNA sequences known as BioBricks can be combined inside microbes to create biological “apps” that perform well-defined functions.

“What synthetic biology is trying to do is build new biology but taking an engineering angle to it so we can make it predictable and repeatable,” said Ellis.

With the ability to transplant genes form one organism to the other scientists have been able to alter the genomes of microbes to create materials such much sought after super-strong spider silk, while others have built complex structures out of DNA itself.

But according to Ellis the most promising avenue is the ability to create artificial genes that code for materials not seen in nature, with the potential to create complex molecules with highly customisable properties.


An interview with Professor Mark Miodownik is available on Sound Cloud:

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