Space Elevators and Carbon Nanotube Patents

Jake Meyer by Jake Meyer

Space elevators are a simple idea that could make transporting passengers or cargo into space relatively easily and inexpensively as compared to our current method of space transport – igniting millions of pounds of fuel to blast a rocket out of our atmosphere.  Most concepts for a space elevator involve a tether anchored to the earth, for example on a floating platform somewhere in the Earth’s oceans.  The tether would stretch 100,000 kilometers or so from Earth, past the Earth’s atmosphere and into space where the tether would be attached to a large counterbalance.  This counterbalance would orbit the Earth while the centrifugal forces from the earth’s rotation would keep a constant tension on the tether.  Under a constant tension, the tether could be used as a rail for a lift or “climber” that could ascend the tether into space carrying with it a payload of cargo or passengers.

Besides making space transport inexpensive, space elevators could also solve our need for environmentally friendly energies.  Space elevators could be used to install large solar power satellites in space that could provide us with inexpensive and continuous energy.  These types of projects are not feasible with our current rocket technology.

There are several challenges to be overcome before a space elevator can be realized.  One challenge is how to power a “climber” up the tether.  In December 2008 at the Second International Conference on Space Elevator and Carbon Nanotube Tether Design in Luxembourg, Age-Raymond Riise of the European Space Agency demonstrated a possible solution by using a broomstick.  By using mechanical vibrations on the tether, a climber could be made to climb the entire length of the tether.  This solution may have challenges of its own, however, as the vibrations could make for a bumpy ride into space.

Another challenge creating a space elevator presents is finding a material that is strong enough to be used as a tether.  Carbon nanotubes may be able to provide the strength-to-weight ratio that would be needed for a space elevator.  But researchers may be deterred from working with carbon nanotubes for fear of patent infringement or may not be able to negotiate licenses from what might be multiple different patent holders.  Patents are being granted on carbon nanotubes that are unduly broad and that are overlapping.   Due to inappropriate patents, the development of an extraordinary application of carbon nanotubes, such as a space elevator, might be slowed or lost completely.

3 thoughts on “Space Elevators and Carbon Nanotube Patents

  1. The semiconductor and consumer electronics industries have not faltered due to overly broad patents. Neither has the software industry. Have we had costly, time consumptive set-backs due overly broad and aggressively litigated patents, e.g. the 1 click case? Of course. However, this has not had a “chilling” effect on innovation. Year over year R&D growth in the U.S. tech sectors was around 6% in the late 90’s, tapered off during the small recession in ’01 and ’02 then hit 11.6% in between ’04 and ’07. (IRI & NSF) In nascent areas of technology, the patent offices frequently struggle to properly identify and examine prior art. This was the case with software, biotechnology, and business methods. Industry outcry, and process/rules changes at the patent offices eventually begin to compensate for the bevy of overly broad patents on emerging technology. It seems to be a pendulum effect not too dissimilar to the economy. Now, due to increased public scrutiny, litigation, and numbers of technically specialized examiners, patents on software, business methods, and biotechnology, have extremly long pendencies, 5-8 yrs at the U.S. patent office. While the pendulum swing in this instance seems a bit dramatic, from overly broad patents on anything to protracted prosecution over the course of 8 years, it does not mean that patents, and more broadly intellecutal property, are evil instruments that freeze R&D. It seems to mirror a fundamentally human and economic cycle of peaks and troughs that ultimately incentifies early wet science, penalizes the later market entries who likely continue to drive product innovation, and provides limited, but arguably more predictable returns to those later market entrants with more incremental product innovations.

  2. It will be interesting to see what happens next with NASA as they are abandoning the shuttle program. Maybe the space elevators are closer than we think.

  3. I read in Science that they might have found a material that is strong enough to be used as a tether for the space elevator. Do you have any update on that?

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