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Batteries Rice University researchers have determined from first-principle calculations that carbyne would be the strongest material yet discovered. The carbon-atom chains would be difficult to make but would be twice as strong as two-dimensional graphene sheets.
Image Credit: Vasilii Artyukhov/Rice University

Published on October 10th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Carbyne — Strongest Material Yet Known, Possesses A Number Of Useful Properties, Research Finds



Carbyne — essentially a chain of carbon atoms held together by either double or alternating single and triple atomic bonds — will be the strongest material (tensile strength) in the world if anyone ever works out a means of producing it in bulk, new research from Rice University has found.

In addition to carbyne’s incredible strength, which is double that of graphene, the material possesses a wide-range of “remarkable” and useful qualities, according to the researchers — especially when formed into nanorods and nanoropes.

Rice University researchers have determined from first-principle calculations that carbyne would be the strongest material yet discovered. The carbon-atom chains would be difficult to make but would be twice as strong as two-dimensional graphene sheets. Image Credit: Vasilii Artyukhov/Rice University

Rice University researchers have determined from first-principle calculations that carbyne would be the strongest material yet discovered. The carbon-atom chains would be difficult to make but would be twice as strong as two-dimensional graphene sheets.
Image Credit: Vasilii Artyukhov/Rice University

Carbyne has actually been around for some time now — an approximation of it was first synthesized in the USSR in 1960. However, until this research, there really wasn’t that much known about it — though, it has been detected since then in interstellar dust and compressed graphite.

So, to address this lack of knowledge, Rice University theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson, along with his research group, set out to create a “portrait” of the material “with computer models using first-principle rules to determine the energetic interactions of atoms.”

Some of the key findings are detailed below:

  • Carbyne’s tensile strength — the ability to withstand stretching — surpasses “that of any other known material” and is double that of graphene. (For some perspective, it would take an elephant standing on a pencil to break through a single sheet of graphene.)
  • It has twice the tensile stiffness of graphene and carbon nanotubes and nearly three times that of diamond.
  • Stretching carbyne as little as 10% alters its electronic band gap significantly.
  • If outfitted with molecular handles at the ends, it can also be twisted to alter its band gap. With a 90-degree end-to-end rotation, it becomes a magnetic semiconductor.
  • Carbyne chains can take on side molecules that may make the chains suitable for energy storage.
  • The material is stable at room temperature, largely resisting crosslinks with nearby chains.
"Nanoropes or nanorods of carbyne, a chain of carbon atoms, would be stronger than graphene or even diamond if they can be manufactured, according to new calculations by Rice University. Theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson said the material might find uses in electronics and for energy storage." Image Credit: Vasilii Artyukhov/Rice University

“Nanoropes or nanorods of carbyne, a chain of carbon atoms, would be stronger than graphene or even diamond if they can be manufactured, according to new calculations by Rice University. Theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson said the material might find uses in electronics and for energy storage.”
Image Credit: Vasilii Artyukhov/Rice University

That’s a rather impressive and interesting array of characteristics, Yakobson explains: “You could look at it as an ultimately thin graphene ribbon, reduced to just one atom, or an ultimately thin nanotube. It could be useful for nanomechanical systems, in spintronic devices, as sensors, as strong and light materials for mechanical applications or for energy storage, etc.”

And, interestingly, carbyne may be the highest energy state possible for stable carbon: “People usually look for what is called the ‘ground state,’ the lowest possible energy configuration for atoms. For carbon, that would be graphite, followed by diamond, then nanotubes, then fullerenes. But nobody asks about the highest energy configuration. We think this may be it, a stable structure at the highest energy possible.”


In something that was a bit of a surprise to the researchers, it turns out that the band gap in carbyne is very sensitive to twisting. A welcome surprise though, as Artyukhov notes: “It will be useful as a sensor for torsion or magnetic fields, if you can find a way to attach it to something that will make it twist. We didn’t look for this, specifically; it came up as a side product.”

Another important finding was the discovery of “the energy barrier that keeps atoms on adjacent carbyne chains from collapsing into each other.” Artyukhov explains: “When you’re talking about theoretical material, you always need to be careful to see if it will react with itself. This has never really been investigated for carbyne.”

Previous research had indicated that carbyne wasn’t stable and would instead quickly transform into graphite and/or soot. That apparently isn’t the reality though, instead “carbon atoms on separate strings might overcome the barrier in one spot, but the rods’ stiffness would prevent them from coming together in a second location, at least at room temperature.”

“They would look like butterfly wings,” Artyukhov explains. Yakobson continues: “Bundles might stick to each other, but they wouldn’t collapse completely. That could make for a highly porous, random net that may be good for adsorption.”

The researchers are planning to continue investigating the material — specifically looking to develop a more in-depth understanding of its conductivity — but, they’re also looking to begin investigations into the one-dimensional forms of elements other than carbon. “We’ve talked about going through different elements in the periodic table to see if some of them can form one-dimensional chains,” Yakobson states.

The research was financially supported by both the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Welch Foundation. The National Science Foundation-supported DaVinCI supercomputer — administered by Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology — performed the calculations for the research.

The new findings were just detailed in a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • JamesWimberley

    I love deep blue-sky research. They can´t even begin to make this stuff! It will come in handy for space elevators.

    • Jouni Valkonen

      Reusable spaceplanes manufactured from carbyne are cheaper to operate than space elevators.

      • Altair IV

        Now just how do you figure that? The entire point of a space elevator is that the cost-per-kilo of putting something into orbit would be much lower than with any other conventional method. With a vehicular system of any kind you have to have enough fuel to carry the vehicle as well as the cargo, and for every kilo more you want to send up you have to have more fuel, then add even more fuel to carry the fuel. With an elevator you could leave the energy source on the ground, and have a continuous loop of cargo carriers in which to raise the all the cargo you want at a slow climb, all the way to geostationary orbit or beyond. The end result is only 1-2% the cost of a normal launch.

        • Jouni Valkonen

          the launch cost of fully reusable single stage to orbit carbyne or graphene spaceplane is far less than 1 % of current expendable launch vehicles. Hence carbon spaceplanes are at least two orders of magnitude cheaper to operate than space elevators. The fuelcost is about 10 000 dollars per launch. Craphene/carbyne spaceplanes are as cheap to operate as commercial airplanes.

          And if consider space elevators humongous capital expenses, the cost difference is even more striking.

          Therefore if ever develop a cheap material that is strong enough for space elevator, is also strong and light enough material for fully reusable spaceplane.

          • Altair IV

            Oh, well that’s completely different then. I’m sorry I doubted you! ;)

            Ok, sorry for the sarcasm, but you’ll have to provide something more substantial than just an “I say it’s so” claim if you want to convince me. I understand that the strength-to-weight ratio means that it would be possible to build planes that would require much less fuel to launch, but I have a very hard time swallowing the idea that it would be enough to reduce the cost to “less than 1%” of current technology.

            And do remember that the space shuttle was originally supposed to be a cheap and reliable space-plane too.

            Oh, and for the record, I happen to think that a space elevator is also a pie-in-the-sky idea, and unlikely to deliver its promised benefits in anything like a reasonable time frame, so this is all just a conceptual exercise for me.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Space shuttle WAS cheaper than conventional rockets (the launch cost was just few hundred millions per launch), but unfortunately US government did not have money for thousands of launches, so that the reusability of shuttle and boosters would have paid off. The biggest problem was the weight of the shuttle components. The dry weight (without fuel) of the space shuttle was 240 tons (including 24 ton payload).

            If space shuttle had made from 200 times lighter graphene, Space shuttle could have delivered 150 ton payload into orbit.

            Since you are ignorant on space travel, I cannot possibly teach you basics from the space planes here, but you can start studying e.g. from here:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylon_(spacecraft)

            Note that Skylon is made from conventional materials. With two hundred times stronger materials like graphene, the performance of Skylon space plane would be 10 to 100 times better.

          • jfritz

            “The dry weight (without fuel) of the space shuttle was 240 tons”

            OOPS!! Nope! The empty weight was about 165,000 lbs or 82.5 short tons. The Weight of the fuel was about 20 times more than the weight of the craft.

            There is just simply no basis for your claim that the shuttle would have been cheaper had the US govt conducted thousands of launches.

            I suppose it’s time for you to call me ignorant now. Maybe point me to a Wikipedia article of a space craft that only exists (or will ever exist for that matter) in the minds of men.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            you forgot that two external boosters weight empty 60 tons each and external fuel tank weights 27 tons. this is 2 x 60 + 27 + 75 + 24 tons = 240 tons.

            So please check your basic facts before you open your loud and ignorant mouth. You may read appropriate wikipedia articles on space shuttle.

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