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Carbyne: The New Strongest Stuff on Earth

ByAlison BruzekNOVA NextNOVA Next

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A few decades ago, scientists learned about a curious form of carbon, known as carbyne, thought to be even stronger than graphene and diamond, two of the strongest materials known to man. They managed to synthesize chains of it in the lab and some astronomers even think they’ve detected its signature in space, but no one really understood its properties—until now.

The Physics arXiv Blog:

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It’s hard to believe that carbon has any more surprises up its sleeve. And yet today, Mingjie Liu and pals at Rice University in Houston calculate the properties of another form of carbon that is stronger, stiffer and more exotic than anything chemists have seen before.

The new material is called carbyne. It’s a chain of carbon atoms that are linked either by alternate triple and single bonds or by consecutive double bonds.

Much like graphene, carbyne is just one atom thick, giving it incredible surface area for any given mass. Scientists also estimate that it is nearly 3 times stiffer than diamond.

A twisted strand of carbon nanotube

Sebastian Anthony writing for Extreme Tech , highlights some of the potential uses:

A single gram of graphene, for example, has a surface area of about five tennis courts. This could be very important in areas such as energy storage (batteries, supercapacitors), where the surface area of the electrode is directly proportional to the energy density of the device.

Unfortunately, carbyne chains are not entirely stable and can react explosively when they touch another chain, though Liu and her team say that will likely only happen at higher temperatures. At room temperature, the substance condenses in a matter of days. That should open up all sorts of uses for this novel material.

It’s just another fascinating discovery for carbon, the chemical basis of all known life.  You can learn more about carbon’s allotropes, specifically carbon nanotubes, in the NOVA episode “Making Stuff: Stronger.” Be sure to fast-forward to 25:51.