Communion Of Dreams

Totally tubular!

Via various news outlets over the last couple of days comes word of a new application of carbon nanotube tech: the creation of a new, much more efficient light-absorbing material, creating a “blacker black”. From the Reuters article:

Made from tiny tubes of carbon standing on end, this material is almost 30 times darker than a carbon substance used by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology as the current benchmark of blackness.

And the material is close to the long-sought ideal black, which could absorb all colors of light and reflect none.

“All the light that goes in is basically absorbed,” Pulickel Ajayan, who led the research team at Rice University in Houston, said in a telephone interview. “It is almost pushing the limit of how much light can be absorbed into one material.”

This is the kind of tech that I envisioned for the light-absorbing material used in the holo-theatre on the Hawking in Communion of Dreams. My notion there was that the tech would allow for a ‘cleaner’ presentation environment, more suitable to the artistic application of the holographic technology in use. I also figured that the ‘stealth suit’ tech in use by the military (referenced in that scene, and used later in the book) would be a similar application of the same basic tech.

Whenever you write SF, you have to make certain assumptions about how future technology will develop, and how it will be applied. Some authors are perfectly happy to just use a technobable approach, others keep true to a given tech but not go into a lot of detail. I tried to stipulate a certain base of technology, then develop it and use it in a consistent fashion, and explain it where it seemed appropriate.

One thing I would have liked to use, but just couldn’t quite make ‘fit’ in Communion was the kind of space elevator technology perhaps best explored by Arthur C. Clarke in his Hugo Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise. Well, maybe I’m just most familiar with that book – certainly the technology has long been used by other authors, and the basic concept has been around for over a century.

Anyway, one of the reasons that this development of a “blacker black” is so interesting is that it is one more step in the process of learning how to create and manipulate carbon nanotubes. To make the super-efficient light-absorbing material, the scientists had to get all the nanotubes to line up almost perfectly side-by side. This is not an easy thing to do when you are dealing with materials which are about one millionth of the thickness of a human hair.

See, the biggest technological problem currently faced by anyone interested in making a space elevator is the development of a sufficiently-strong tensile material to use as a cable or ribbon anchoring the elevator to the Earth. The folks at the LiftPort Group have a lot of good information on this. Carbon nanotubes are frequently considered the best bet for this material, yet the production of sufficiently strong nanotube ribbon in enough quantity to be cost effective has proven to be very problematic. Clarke knew this back in 1979 when he wrote The Fountains of Paradise, and he put considerable effort into explaining the problem and showing how the technological breakthrough of his ‘mono-dimensional diamond hyperfilament’ was essential to the development of the first space elevator.

This is how I see this kind of technology (really, most kinds of technology) being developed. First, the basic discovery is made. Then people start to figure out how to make and manipulate it in rather crude ways. Engineering problems are overcome, bit by bit, and new applications of the material are found and cost-effective production facilities built. Over time, more breakthroughs are made in engineering and economics, and more applications are found. Eventually the technological and industrial base is so well developed that something like a space elevator becomes not just feasible, but practical from an economic point of view.

So, rejoice – that “blacker black” announced this week isn’t just some quirky geek toy – it another (very important) step to a wonderful future.

Jim Downey

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[…] Reality, MetaFilter, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Writing stuff, movies, tech I mentioned the other day that as in any SF, I took a look at where technology was, where it was likely headed, […]

Pingback by Do you see what I see? « Communion Of Dreams

Not to be off topic but I saw where they were doing some stem cell construction of heart valves at Duke… Looks like if they were really serious they would be working on the construction of the pituitary gland and others of the Endocrine glands instead… It would in my mind, render the heart valve replacement totally obsolete… Now there is a piece of some science fiction that may become real in the next few years that would be truly amazing.

Comment by Doctor Buzzard

Hey Doc, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I saw that – may have even written about it. There is little doubt that we are indeed seeing many things come to pass which are truly science fiction – and yes, it is certainly amazing.

Jim D.

Comment by Communion of Dreams

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