Category Archives: disasters

Artificial muscles using folded graphene


Folded Graphene Concept

Two years ago I wrote a blog on future hosiery where I very briefly mentioned the idea of using folded graphene as synthetic muscles:

Although I’ve since mentioned it to dozens of journalists, none have picked up on it, so now that soft robotics and artificial muscles are in the news, I guess it’s about time I wrote it up myself, before someone else claims the idea. I don’t want to see an MIT article about how they have just invented it.

The above pic gives the general idea. Graphene comes in insulating or conductive forms, so it will be possible to make sheets covered with tiny conducting graphene electromagnet coils that can be switched individually to either polarity and generate strong magnetic forces that pull or push as required. That makes it ideal for a synthetic muscle, given the potential scale. With 1.5nm-thick layers that could be anything from sub-micron up to metres wide, this will allow thin fibres and yarns to make muscles or shape change fabrics all the way up to springs or cherry-picker style platforms, using many such structures. Current can be switched on and off or reversed very rapidly, to make continuous forces or vibrations, with frequency response depending on application – engineering can use whatever scales are needed. Natural muscles are limited to 250Hz, but graphene synthetic muscles should be able to go to MHz.

Uses vary from high-rise rescue, through construction and maintenance, to space launch. Since the forces are entirely electromagnetic, they could be switched very rapidly to respond to any buckling, offering high stabilisation.


The extreme difference in dimensions between folded and opened state mean that an extremely thin force mat made up of many of these cherry-picker structures could be made to fill almost any space and apply force to it. One application that springs to mind is rescues, such as after earthquakes have caused buildings to collapse. A sheet could quickly apply pressure to prize apart pieces of rubble regardless of size and orientation. It could alternatively be used for systems for rescuing people from tall buildings, fracking or many other applications.


It would be possible to make large membranes for a wide variety of purposes that can change shape and thickness at any point, very rapidly.


One such use is a ‘jellyfish’, complete with stinging cells that could travel around in even very thin atmospheres all by itself. Upper surfaces could harvest solar power to power compression waves that create thrust. This offers use for space exploration on other planets, but also has uses on Earth of course, from surveillance and power generation, through missile defense systems or self-positioning parachutes that may be used for my other invention, the Pythagoras Sling. That allows a totally rocket-free space launch capability with rapid re-use.


Much thinner membranes are also possible, as shown here, especially suited for rapid deployment missile defense systems:


Also particularly suited to space exploration o other planets or moons, is the worm, often cited for such purposes. This could easily be constructed using folded graphene, and again for rescue or military use, could come with assorted tools or lethal weapons built in.


A larger scale cherry-picker style build could make ejector seats, elevation platforms or winches, either pushing or pulling a payload – each has its merits for particular types of application.  Expansion or contraction could be extremely rapid.


An extreme form for space launch is the zip-winch, below. With many layers just 1.5nm thick, expanding to 20cm for each such layer, a 1000km winch cable could accelerate a payload rapidly as it compresses to just 7.5mm thick!


Very many more configurations and uses are feasible of course, this blog just gives a few ideas. I’ll finish with a highlight I didn’t have time to draw up yet: small particles could be made housing a short length of folded graphene. Since individual magnets can be addressed and controlled, that enables magnetic powders with particles that can change both their shape and the magnetism of individual coils. Precision magnetic fields is one application, shape changing magnets another. The most exciting though is that this allows a whole new engineering field, mixing hydraulics with precision magnetics and shape changing. The powder can even create its own chambers, pistons, pumps and so on. Electromagnetic thrusters for ships are already out there, and those same thrust mechanisms could be used to manipulate powder particles too, but this allows for completely dry hydraulics, with particles that can individually behave actively or  passively.





Spiderman-style silk thrower

I quite like Spiderman movies, and having the ability to fire a web at a distant object or villain has its appeal. Since he fires web from his forearm, it must be lightweight to withstand the recoil, and to fire enough to hold his weight while he swings, it would need to have extremely strong fibers. It is therefore pretty obvious that the material of choice when we build such a thing will be graphene, which is even stronger than spider silk (though I suppose a chemical ejection device making spider silk might work too). A thin graphene thread is sufficient to hold him as he swings so it could fit inside a manageable capsule.

So how to eject it?

One way I suggested for making graphene threads is to 3D print the graphene, using print nozzles made of carbon nanotubes and using a very high-speed modulation to spread the atoms at precise spacing so they emerge in the right physical patterns and attach appropriate positive or negative charge to each atom as they emerge from the nozzles so that they are thrown together to make them bond into graphene. This illustration tries to show the idea looking at the nozzles end on, but shows only a part of the array:printing graphene filamentsIt doesn’t show properly that the nozzles are at angles to each other and the atoms are ejected in precise phased patterns, but they need to be, since the atoms are too far apart to form graphene otherwise so they need to eject at the right speed in the right directions with the right charges at the right times and if all that is done correctly then a graphene filament would result. The nozzle arrangements, geometry and carbon atom sizes dictate that only narrow filaments of graphene can be produced by each nozzle, but as the threads from many nozzles are intertwined as they emerge from the spinneret, so a graphene thread would be produced made from many filaments. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrange carbon nanotubes in such a way and at the right angle, so provided we can get the high-speed modulation and spacing right, it ought to be feasible. Not easy, but possible. Then again, Spiderman isn’t real yet either.

The ejection device would therefore be a specially fabricated 3D print head maybe a square centimeter in area, backed by a capsule containing finely powdered graphite that could be vaporized to make the carbon atom stream through the nozzles. Some nice lasers might be good there, and some cool looking electronic add-ons to do the phasing and charging. You could make this into one heck of a cool gun.

How thick a thread do we need?

Assuming a 70kg (154lb) man and 2g acceleration during the swing, we need at least 150kg breaking strain to have a small safety margin, bearing in mind that if it breaks, you can fire a new thread. Steel can achieve that with 1.5mm thick wire, but graphene’s tensile strength is 300 times better than steel so 0.06mm is thick enough. 60 microns, or to put it another way, roughly 140 denier, although that is a very quick guess. That means roughly the same sort of graphene thread thickness is needed to support our Spiderman as the nylon used to make your backpack. It also means you could eject well over 10km of thread from a 200g capsule, plenty. Happy to revise my numbers if you have better ones. Google can be a pain!

How fast could the thread be ejected?

Let’s face it. If it can only manage 5cm/s, it is as much use as a chocolate flamethrower. Each bond in graphene is 1.4 angstroms long, so a graphene hexagon is about 0.2nm wide. We would want our graphene filament to eject at around 100m/s, about the speed of a crossbow bolt. 100m/s = 5 x 10^11 carbon atoms ejected per second from each nozzle, in staggered phasing. So, half a terahertz. Easy! That’s well within everyday electronics domains. Phew! If we can do better, we can shoot even faster.

We could therefore soon have a graphene filament ejection device that behaves much like Spiderman’s silk throwers. It needs some better engineers than me to build it, but there are plenty of them around.

Having such a device would be fun for sports, allowing climbers to climb vertical rock faces and overhangs quickly, or to make daring leaps and hope the device works to save them from certain death. It would also have military and police uses. It might even have uses in road accident prevention, yanking pedestrians away from danger or tethering cars instantly to slow them extra quickly. In fact, all the emergency services would have uses for such devices and it could reduce accidents and deaths. I feel confident that Spiderman would think of many more exciting uses too.

Producing graphene silk at 100m/s might also be pretty useful in just about every other manufacturing industry. With ultra-fine yarns with high strength produced at those speeds, it could revolutionize the fashion industry too.

Tackling tornados and hurricanes: The extractor

A tornado has several orders of magnitude less energy than a hurricane, but both can kill people and create enormous damage to lives and property. It would be good to be able to reduce their force by sapping away their energy. The extractor does that. The energy extracted would be in electrical form and could be beamed by microwave to a rectenna array. These would be spread around the areas that suffer most and their costs offset by the high value of the energy collected.

An extractor would be large scale engineering in the sense that it would be very large, but it need not be especially heavy. It would actually be a fairly free-moving but tethered aerial wind farm. Size would be a few kilometres across up to 50km. Depth would be 200-300m.

It could be made entirely of carbon – carbon foam for buoyancy of the structure, graphene or carbon fibre supports and beams to hold the structure together and give the rigidity needed to sap energy from the storm, graphene capacitors for the vertical axis micro-turbine blades, and super-capacitors to store energy pending transmission, graphene string as the spindles for the blades and as wires to conduct the electricity around.

The pieces holding the structure would have a very strong graphene core, lined with buoyant carbon foam, and therefore need little weight still to be supported, so could easily be floated up from the ground and assembled mid air, using carbon foam balloons to hold the assembly platforms, and a high altitude carbon foam balloon could drag it into place and hold it in the storm vicinity once ready.

The struts all lock together to form a fairly rigid structure, but one that could bend a great deal before any damage would result. An extractor could be fifty kilometres across to sap energy from a large storm such as a hurricane, but just a few kilometres would do for a more tightly focused event such as a tornado.

100m square sails would be hung between the struts. Each sail would be made of hundreds of thousands of small S-shaped carbon capacitors, held on a graphene string spindle. As the wind blew on them, the concave side of each capacitor would catch the wind and be forced through a narrow gap. That would bend it further. When it cleared the gap, it would spring back to its normal curvature before being bent and straightening again as it passed through the gap on the other side. The difference in drag between the concave and convex sides provided the force to push the blades through the gaps, and the flexing of the carbon capacitors made the separation between the plates vary, thus creating a voltage change and electrical current. That electrical energy extraction meant less energy for the storm. The electricity was passed through graphene strings to a collector cable which carried the huge aggregated current from each sail.

The overall force on each sail would be high, but the super-strength carbon materials they are made from are easily up to the job. The enormously strong winds in a tornado or hurricane would create massive forces that should normally cause a large sail to be carried with the wind, but due to the massive size of the overall extractor structure, the wind movements at each sail are very different and forces in one direction on the wider structure would be balanced against forces in another. Overall the array creates massive drag that slows the winds. The individual tiny rotating vertical axis vanes don’t care which way they were heading. As long as there is some local relative movement of the air, they would be able to extract energy from that area. High stresses would be generated but the strength of the graphene struts would withstand them. The overall effect would be that the whole array would wander around a bit, but its overall position would be determined by the balloon supporting it far above. The powered balloon would follow the path of the storm and extract as much energy from it as possible, transmitting it by intense microwave beams to earthbound rectenna arrays that have been situated in the areas usually affected.

In this way, huge energy could be extracted from a storm. A tornado could quickly be drained of almost all of its energy and rendered harmless. A hurricane would take longer. Its total energy was many orders of magnitude greater than a tornado, and its overall force would be more gradually siphoned away. Each 100m square sail could extract a few megawatts, and there were a thousand of them on the largest extractors. Siphoning off several gigawatts from a large hurricane could downgrade it substantially within a matter of hours, saving many lives and enormous saving of property damage. The free electricity is just an added bonus. Tornadoes are far smaller and easier to deal with than hurricanes and could quickly be made totally harmless.

Making any water supply safe: Graphene drinking straws

Sometimes there are emergencies such as natural disasters. These are often followed by the need for refugee camps, and getting access to clean water can sometimes become a problem. Disease often becomes widespread thanks to polluted supplies. Graphene can come to the rescue, again.

Graphene has many remarkable properties, but one is that water passes through a graphene coating onto an absorbent surface as if it wasn’t there. Given the large number of people in the world without access to clean water, wouldn’t it be nice if we could make this:

Graphene drinking straw

The absorbent material provides a smooth surface onto which to apply the graphene coating. The graphene coating filters out everything except the clean drinking water. The sponge then provides a reservoir from which to suck safe drinking water. When we get to the point that graphene can be produced cheaply and easily, this could save many lives in developing countries, in disaster zones, and even be useful to save carried weight for hikers, sailors and the military.

High altitude balloons using graphene foam

Graphene foam can be made up of tiny spheres of graphene that contain a vacuum. The graphene spheres are large enough that the average density of the graphene and vacuum is less than helium, so I suggested it as a helium substitute. Here is my original article:

It wasn’t long after I wrote it that a Chinese group achieved it, and they subsequently discovered it makes an ideal platform for cultivating stem cells, something that hadn’t even crossed my mind. But that’s engineers for you. Someone invents one idea and someone else runs with it and makes something far better. Anyway, graphene foams already exist today that are 6 times lighter than air.

We hear a lot about high altitude balloons being used for communications, e.g. Google’s Loon project. As is the norm for Google, the idea predates their’s considerably, but never mind, at least they are developing it where others left it on the drawing board.

High altitude balloons so far use helium to achieve the low density. In stark contrast, a huge solid balloon could be made out of graphene foam, and it could be lighter than helium yet stronger than steel. Graphene foam is therefore ideal for making solid balloons for a wide range of purposes.

Way above clouds, the top surface of such a balloon would be perfect to produce solar power for use inside, and the lower side is perfect to transmit this to the ground house communications transponders or simply reflect communication signals.

It could be ideal to house a death ray too, but let’s not think about that for now.

A large, solid, strong balloon could act as an excellent base for a wide range of activities, but it could also be mobile, just like an airship. A combination of special carbon motors such as graphene electron pipes directly powered by energy stored in graphene capacitors. These would be charged with solar electricity generated by from the intense sunlight unimpeded by clouds, the movement of a carbon wire through the magnetic field, thermocouples, solar panels, or harnessing power from high altitude winds. They could even use power harvested from hurricanes and tornadoes, saving many lives and a lot of property too:

Balloons could also used to deal with forest fires, collecting and storing water directly from clouds and dropping it onto the fire. In fact, these highly positive emergency uses may ultimately be the main reason such a large object would be allowed to remain up in the sky unchallenged in spite of its potential misuses (such as acting the role of mother-ship to a fleet of smaller airships or other weapons). With no need for helium, this kind of solid balloon would be much more environmentally friendly than the traditional variety, perfect for sustainability.