Spurred on by a $4m (Â£2.7m) research prize from Nasa, a team at Cambridge University has created the worldâ€™s strongest ribbon: a cylindrical strand of carbon that combines lightweight flexibility with incredible strength and has the potential to stretch vast distances. The development has been seized upon by the space scientists, who believe the technology could allow astronauts to travel into space via a cable thousands of miles long â€” a space elevator.
They predict the breakthrough will revolutionise space travel. It has a point, though at this stage it is still a tenuous one. Such an elevator could potentially offer limitless and cheap space travel. At a stroke, it would make everything from tourism to more ambitious expeditions to Mars commercially viable. The idea couldnâ€™t come too soon for Nasa, which spends an estimated Â£308m every time the shuttle blasts off, not to mention burning about 900 tons of polluting rocket fuel.
The Cambridge team is making about 1 gram of the high-tech material per day, enough to stretch to 18 miles in length. â€œWe have Nasa on the phone asking for 144,000 miles of the stuff, but there is a difference between what can be achieved in a lab and on an industrial level,â€ says Alan Windle, professor of materials science at Cambridge University, who is anxious not to let the work get ahead of itself.