The Strongest Material on the Planet Could Actually Take Us Off the Planet

Scientists developed the new fibers from carbon nanotubes, an ultra-thin yet super-light space-age alloy. Foxstudio/Shutterstock

The strongest fiber on Earth could soon take us off the planet entirely.

In fact, Chinese scientists claim just a little more than half a cubic inch of the new fibers could dangle 160 elephants, or more than 800 tons of weight, without breaking a sweat.

The researchers, from Tsinghua University in Beijing, developed the super-long fibres from carbon nanotubes, an electricity-producing material that's already considered stronger than steel.

"It is evident that the tensile strength of carbon nanotube bundles is at least 9 to 45 times that of other materials," the scientists noted in a research paper published earlier this year in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Hailing it as a major breakthrough, the scientists envision their silky strands weaving super-strong sports equipment, ballistic armor and even hauling us off-world via a space elevator.

It wouldn't be the first time someone has floated the idea of a space elevator. In fact, a Canadian company has already applied for a patent for a machine that take people straight up about 12 miles into space.

A design for a space elevator
Thoth Technology, a company based in Ontario, Canada, has been pushing for a patent on a space elevator since 2008. U.S. Patent Office

But most plans for such an elevator require a cable that's strong enough to stay taut as the Earth rotates — while lifting tons of equipment and humans up, up and away.

So far, despite scientific interest, a working prototype has not emerged. The new fibers, while weighing next to nothing, could be just the ticket for this ride.

The idea, as detailed in the South China Morning Post, would be to lower a cable to Earth from a satellite that's locked into our planet's geostationary orbit. A second cable would provide the counterweight.

An illustration of the space elevator concept
All aboard the orbital express?. Photobank gallery/Shutterstock

But where to find the kind of cable that instills passengers with a sense of confidence that the elevator will withstand that kind of pressure — without, you know, hurtling back down to Earth, a screaming, fiery box of terror?

"If the cable is not strong enough, it would not even be able to support its own weight. Until now, there has been no material tough enough to do the job," Wang Changqing, of the China-Russia International Space Tether System Research Centre, told the newspaper.

That's where those futuristic carbon nanotubes — and more specifically, the newly developed fibers — come in.

Some scientists have pointed out that such a fiber would need to be at least 7 gigapascals (GPa) strong, although reports suggest the tensile strength should be closer to 50 GPa.

The team from Tsinghua University say their super-strong threads clock in at more than 80 GPa.

So, are we there yet?

Outside of patents and very elaborate designs, there's little actual infrastructure in both space and on the ground to support that kind of setup. At least not yet.

And of course there's the problem of the time that elevator ride would take — estimated at around for seven or eight days. That's a long time for passengers to stand around staring up at the illuminated floor numbers while avoiding eye contact with each other.