One would have to have avoided movie theaters and television screens for the last few decades not to have ever seen Sigourney Weaver's "Ripley" character, when she's blasting aliens apart, having to stand back since the monsters' blood is the most caustic acid imaginable. Film viewers clutch their armrests watching in awe as it eats right through the spaceship's metallic floors, melting and dripping from deck to deck.
While many imagine that such liquids are found only in science fiction there actually exists an acid just like that. Mixing up a batch of antimony pentafluoride with hydrofluoric acid will produce a substance — fluoroantimonic acid — with a Ph in excess of -28, more than a billion, billion, billion times stronger than stomach acid. It will eat through anything.
Superacids, however, are just one indication that mankind has entered into a truly modern age of materials science where the astonishingly extreme limits are being reached and surpassed, and not just with regard to acids.
Researchers attempting to construct the world's first fusion reactors have reached the milestone of heating the magnetic crucibles of tokamaks up to 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. Their goal is to kick that temperature up to a jaw-dropping 180 million degrees F within the next 10 years, and actually to begin the first controlled fusion of hydrogen isotopes, the last step toward the production of electricity so bountiful as to suffice for the entire planet.
Nothing, of course, can contain such mind-boggling temperatures — equal to the searing heat at the center of stars — but with tokamaks nothing does. The fire at the heart of these colossal machines is constrained through invisible, non-corporeal, magnetic fields that hold the plasma in place.
At the other end of the scale, Homo sapiens' efforts are almost as eyebrow-raising. Absolute zero is like the speed of light; super-advanced civilizations can closely approach both but not even a race of demigods can fully attain either one.
Absolute zero is negative 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit — below zero; scientists have achieved -459.669999999 ° F. Even as this is read though a new record is probably being set.
Then there is the critical and essential category of the strongest materials available. An unbelievably tough one is needed, for example, if mankind is to retire the archaic firecracker-like method of blasting payloads into orbit with chemical rockets.
As early as A.D. 1232, at the Battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese were using chemical missiles against the Mongols. Eight centuries later a completely new approach to putting megatons of vital materials into Earth orbit could be on the horizon.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the great Russian rocketeer and devisor of the universal Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation is the first to flirt with the idea of building tethers into space, 22,250 miles high, to hoist materiel and personnel into orbit cheaply, prosaically, by virtue of literally winching the cargos into orbit. The beauty of orbital stations at exactly this height — geosynchronous orbit — is that the floating space station or satellite at the destination level remains perpetually drifting over a fixed point on the surface of the Earth forever, seemingly set and unmoving.
A space elevator's cables would be held taut by the rotational force of the Earth pitted against the pull of gravity, skimming the surface of the Earth yet stretching to orbital altitudes at geosynchronous levels. It would be as epoch-changing as anything ever constructed in human history.
The monumental problem is to find a material strong enough to support something that reaches from the ground to space. Physicists are exploring a gamut of esoteric materials that possess mind-boggling tensile strength in hopes of discovering a substance up to the job: carbon nanotubes, boron nitride nanotubes, diamond nanothreads, graphene, etc.
The Obayashi Corporation, the mega-construction company based in Tokyo, has declared that it will build a space elevator by 2050; the Chinese say theirs will be up and running by 2045.
The benefits of a space elevator can't be overstated.
It would convert trips to space from the rare and shockingly expensive to the realm of common and relatively cheap. Today it costs $3,500 per pound to hoist something into Earth orbit; that cost could plummet to around $25. And with enough goods and materiel in the near-future being shunted back and forth between the ground and space, manufacturing in orbit — where products impossible or very difficult to make on Earth can be created in micro-gravity — might really take off.
The next industrial powerhouse, the future Pittsburgh, Detroit or Manchester, may not even be on the surface of this planet, but far above it.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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