April 28, 2005 in Business

Space-elevator company has nowhere to go but up

Associated Press

BREMERTON, Wash. — Going up?

LiftPort Inc. is gearing up to build an elevator to space, with a top-floor altitude of 62,000 miles for delivery of satellites and people.

“Ultimately, the space elevator could be used for people to travel into space, from the moon, to Mars and beyond,” the company’s Web site says.

“It’s real,” said company founder and CEO Mike Laine of LiftPort’s mission. “It is kind of hard to imagine.”

LiftPort Inc. of Bremerton plans to open a plant in Millville, N.J., that will produce building blocks for the thousands of miles of pure-carbon elevator cable.

The privately held company’s new division, LiftPort Nanotech Inc., will begin production of carbon nanotubes in June at a 3,000-square-foot plant in Millville, N.J.

The tiny tubes made of carbon are one 10-thousandth the diameter of a human hair and one one-thousandth a hair’s diameter in length. Carbon, about 60 times stronger than steel, is the only substance that could be used to construct the elevator cable, the company said.

The completed cable will be a ribbon about 3 feet wide, company founder and CEO Michael Laine said Wednesday. LiftPort is still working on the carbon formula, but the final product will be as thin as plastic wrap and have “a plastick-y, flexible feel,” he said.

“The stuff we need we can’t build yet,” Laine said, comparing the development work to a Roman bridge that begins with an arrow shot from a bow to carry a rope across a gap. “We won’t have the real thing for years.”

More than 100 companies are competing to develop the perfect material for a space elevator, Laine said. His company has 80 shareholders, who have invested between $500 and $10,000 each, and about $700,000 in assets.

The New Jersey plant is “a baby step in the right direction,” Laine said. When the company was founded three years ago, “we had a pie-in-the-sky vision. This is our first, tangible, hard-core step.”

If all goes according to plan, the LiftPort ribbon will eventually be anchored to a Pacific Ocean platform about 2,500 miles south of San Diego and west of Ecuador and attached at the far end — 62,000 miles out — to a small, orbiting counterweight.

Within 13 years. a robotic elevator car will crawl up and down the ribbon, delivering satellites, solar-power systems — and eventually people — for about $400 a pound, “providing routine access to space,” Laine said.

From the counterweight, the Earth’s spin can be used to fling satellites and other materials farther out, like a stone from a slingshot, he said.

In the meantime, the company hopes to sell its New Jersey-produced nanotubes to plastic and glass manufacturers.

Adding 2 percent carbon nanotubes to 98 percent pure polypropylene plastic makes the mixture 40 percent stronger — ideal for laptop computer cases, car bodies and airplane parts, Laine said.

The city of Millville and a county development project provided $100,000 to help build the plant, which will open with six full-time employees.

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