Fullerenes And The Future Of War

Image: NASA

For his story “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch,” Alec Medén was a finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is also a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” judged by bestselling author David Brin, for a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.

A platoon of Army infantry goes out on a patrol. Their body armor and uniforms are thin and light, and yet when the point man is struck by a 7.62 millimeter round, he stumbles, before collapsing on the ground. In an instant, he is back on his feet with his weapon up. As the platoon is engaged, they call for air support. Loitering unmanned air-support aircraft, which have been overhead for nearly 30 hours thanks to light, ultrastrong components, descend to support them. The munitions that they drop are more effective than any RDX-based explosive currently in existence.

While discussions of networked combat and autonomous weapons animate conversations about future battlefields, it is worth considering basic materials too. One in particular offers plenty of fodder for military science fiction: Fullerene.

Named after scientist Buckminster Fuller, it is a family of carbon molecules whose arrangements of carbon atoms have a vast range of mechanical and electrical properties that could lead to a whole host of vital applications. The original discovery in the fullerene family is Buckminsterfullerene. The basic components of this material are often nicknamed “bucky-balls” as they are spheres of carbon atoms about 1 nanometer in diameter.

Past references to bucky-ball-infused materials popped up in stories like William Gibson’s 1996 novel Virtual Light (which also carries faxes far into the future) or “diamondoid” references in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995). While no commercial applications have yet been realized, a recent study may prove that they could bear fruit in the nascent field of military nanoexplosives. By injecting nitrous oxide into bucky-balls, exposure of the molecule to high temperature created a devastatingly hot explosion in mere picoseconds. The study itself focused on using these explosives in miniscule scales as a way to target and then annihilate cancer cells with targeted explosions. However, if such a material could be produced on a larger scale, it could yield a remarkably energetic explosive with applications as manifold as those of the current RDX explosive.

Perhaps the most remarked upon of these materials in the media is graphene. Composed of essentially 2D carbon sheets that can be stacked, graphene’s mechanical properties have lead it to be a favorite “wonder material” in the news and future forecasting. It is, by some definitions, the strongest material ever tested, with 200 times the tensile strength of steel. If it can be produced reliably on a large scale, this would mean that it could be used as spectacularly durable armor if layered in with a composite. What’s more, it’s essentially transparent.

Graphene can be manipulated into forming carbon nanotubes, which are essentially small tubes of the material roughly one nanometer in diameter. Nanotubes, while exhibiting a slightly lower overall strength, have the benefit of being far more elastic and perhaps better suited to personal body armor or objects like cables, with a 600 nanometer (.000001 m) width barrier providing the ability to deflect rounds with the muzzle energy of a .22 pistol. A one-millimeter wire of well-crafted carbon nanotubes would withstand about 6,422 kilograms of force. Perhaps one of the most remarkable applications found for nanotubes, and especially relevant to the field of military robotics, is their use in very basic synthetic muscles. These are made from structures of nanotubes called carbon aerogels that have the potential to operate at over a thousand degrees as well as absolute zero, and produce almost 30 times the force of natural muscles.

With any range of technologies that appear to have a growing potential, it’s important to forecast with caution. After all, many still remember the constant prophesizing during the Cold War era about the coming ubiquity of nuclear power and miraculous plastics. Graphene and carbon nanotubes are no stranger to disappointments, as there has been a large lag between popular expectations and real world applications.

It’s also important to remember that nearly every application described is predicated on the ability to manufacture these materials precisely on a large scale, something that may be decades away. Another crucial question to answer is where such breakthroughs will come from: military or civilian researchers? If innovation in mobile communications, social media, and autonomous software are an indicator, firms with Silicon Valley roots and not government labs could be the first movers with fullerenes. If we can discover how to effectively create large amounts of these carbon materials in a cheap, commercially friendly fashion, then profound changes to the way we live our lives¾and fight our wars¾are likely. What’s more, if there is a way to produce fullerenes from raw carbon efficiently, there is a slim but significant chance that global climate change could be mitigated in part by capturing carbon and turning it into valuable construction materials. Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?

But as we try to explore the future through fiction, it’s important to remember the power of less flashy but potentially groundbreaking strides made in materials science.