Diamonds are among women's most coveted gems. They're glamorously beautiful and precious but it is for the rock's remarkable strength that a group of scientists have looked at it for inspiration in creating a material that may possibly wind up in "space elevators" that would allow mankind to get into orbit without being ferried by a large spacecraft.

For a new study published in the journal Nature Materials on Sept. 21, John Badding, a professor from the Penn State University (PSU), and his team have described how they came up with a method to produce ultra-thin diamond nanothreads with promising properties such as extraordinary stiffness and strength that are better than that of the strongest polymers and nanotubes that are available today.

Earlier experiments have failed to compress separate carbon-containing molecules into a diamond-like nanomaterial but Badding's team eventually came up with a workaround by slowly releasing pressure after compressing benzene yielding a material with carbon atoms arranged similar to that off the fundamental unit of the diamond's structure. The nanothread has carbon atoms forming a tetrahedral configuration at the core and hydrogen atoms that hang to the side.

"These nanothreads promise extraordinary properties such as strength and stiffness higher than that of sp2 ​carbon nanotubes or conventional high-strength polymers," Badding and colleagues wrote. "They may be the first member of a new class of ordered sp3 nanomaterials synthesized by kinetic control of high-pressure solid-state reactions."

Study co-author Malcolm Guthrie, from the Carnegie Institution for Science, said that they applied enormous pressure to compress 6-millimeter-wide of benzene using Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Paris-Edinburgh device.

"We discovered that slowly releasing the pressure after sufficient compression at normal room temperature gave the carbon atoms the time they needed to react with each other and to link up in a highly ordered chain of single-file carbon tetrahedrons, forming these diamond-core nanothreads," Guthrie said.

Given that the material is light-weight, exceedingly strong and stiff, there are industries that the material could have crucial uses and applications but Badding said that he is interested to see the material used in areas that involve the protection of the atmosphere and the development of vehicles that are more fuel efficient and less polluting.

"One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a 'space elevator,'" Badding said adding that the idea to date remains a science fiction idea.

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