Scientists may have just created the world’s strongest material from tiny diamonds
Image: John Badding lab, Penn State Univeristy

These nanothreads could be far stronger than today’s nanotubes and polymers, according to chemist and research team leader John V. Badding from Penn State University in the US.

"From a fundamental-science point of view, our discovery is intriguing because the threads we formed have a structure that has never been seen before," said Badding in a press release. 

The core component of these nanothreads is a long, thin strand of carbon atoms arranged in the unique diamond structure - zig-zag cyclohexane rings of six carbon atoms are bound together, and each carbon is surrounded by others in the strong triangular-pyramid shape of a tetrahedron. 

"It is as if an incredible jeweller has strung together the smallest possible diamonds into a long miniature necklace," said Badding. "Because this thread is diamond at heart, we expect that it will prove to be extraordinarily stiff, extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily useful."

The research is published in Nature Materials, and comes after nearly a century of attempts to create carbon-containing molecules such as benzene into diamond-like nanomaterials. In this experiment, the scientists managed to compress benzene - a molecule with six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms - to create a diamond core nanothread that’s surrounded by a halo of hydrogen atoms, the press release explains.

As they released the pressure, the atoms reconnected in a never-before-seen but orderly way, and form a thread that’s only a few atoms across - hundreds of thousands of times thinner than an optical fibre. 

"That the atoms of the benzene molecules link themselves together at room temperature to make a thread is shocking to chemists and physicists,” said Badding.

“Considering earlier experiments, we think that, when the benzene molecule breaks under very high pressure, its atoms want to grab onto something else but they can't move around because the pressure removes all the space between them. This benzene then becomes highly reactive so that, when we release the pressure very slowly, an orderly polymerisation reaction happens that forms the diamond-core nanothread."

The discovery was confirmed using techniques such as X-ray diffraction and Raman spectroscopy. The next step is to work out how to perfect these diamond nanothreads and how to upscale their production. But early research suggests we may have a new candidate for the world’s most super, super material. 

"Theory by our co-author Vin Crespi suggests that this is potentially the strongest, stiffest material possible, while also being light in weight," said Badding in the press release.

“One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a space elevator, which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea,” he added.

Interestingly, a Japanese company announced yesterday they're planning to build a functioning space elevator by 2050. So anyone know how we go about getting these guys in touch?

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