Tuesday 13 October 2020

Ballonts IX: Blue Sky Thinking (Part 2)

By Abbydon

The previous article discussed the possibility of using soap bubbles to create small lighter than air organisms. A second possibility is more sophisticated and relies on the wonder material, graphene. It was discovered in 2004 by two scientists at the University of Manchester who were subsequently awarded a Nobel prize for their work.

Graphene is made of a flat sheet of carbon atoms, so it is a little bit like 2D diamond. It has many interesting properties but is most well-known for its high strength (100 times stronger than steel) and low density (less than 0.001 grams per square metre). An amusing illustration of this was provided in the Nobel prize paper. Imagine a one square metre graphene hammock tied between two trees. This could hold a 4 kg cat before breaking yet would only weigh as much as one of the cat’s whiskers.

As impressive as this is, recent work suggests that graphene has another property that is extremely relevant to ballonts. Graphene is also impermeable to gases. With such an amazingly low density it effectively produces a matte-black massless membrane even when a few thousand layers are used.

It would however be extremely challenging for life to produce a graphene balloon with absolutely no defects. A more robust approach is to copy the bubble foam concept and use a mass of small graphene “bubbles” instead. Conveniently, a material extremely similar to this called aerographene has been invented by scientists. It consists of a complex 3D network of graphene and carbon nanotubes where most of the volume is air. For this reason, when measured in a vacuum it has a density slightly lower than helium at 0.16 kg/m3.

Click to enlarge; copyright unknown; source here

While aerographene itself is not airtight it is not inconceivable that a material like it could be produced that contains many small airtight compartments in a similar way to a bubble foam. If these compartments contained a lifting gas, then the entire structure would float. When I mention aerographene below I am actually referring to this possibility and not the real material. The chart below shows that both a 1000-layer graphene membrane and a “solid” aerographene balloon would easily enable small (or large) ballonts.

Click to enlarge; copyright Abbydon

This strongly suggests that an “magic” aerographene like material could be used to enable small ballonts to exist. Since they cannot have a membrane then any aerographene produced would be an external structure grown from the bottom up, like hair, and could not be repaired only replaced. Additional graphene would be produced on the lower surface where the organism was hanging while the top surface would slowly degrade.

It is unfortunately unknown whether life could produce graphene in the first place as it does not appear to be produced naturally by life on Earth. Industrial processes for producing graphene based products typically require temperatures beyond the reach of even the most extreme of extremophiles. However, Shewanella oneidensis bacteria can be used to produce graphene from graphene oxide which is at least a start.

I am not a chemist and this is not the blog to delve deeply into the exact chemical process that life could use to produce graphene at ambient temperatures. There is some justification that it would not be implausible though. Inspired by photosynthesis the direct conversion of carbon dioxide into graphene at high temperatures has been demonstrated. A slightly different approach has even been shown to work at room temperature.

As an example of what is possible, an approximately spherical lump of dark grey aerographene with a 9 cm radius can lift about 3 g. This could support something like a praying mantis that is about 7 cm long though could perhaps be longer and thinner. A cup-like abdomen could contain the graphene and hydrogen producing organs while the four long rear legs partially surround the sphere to maintain a grip. Four independent wings could provide mobility. The long forearms would then provide good reach to gather food. Due to the benefits of aerographene this hanging mantis would be able to float even when small and could grow to a size only limited by other factors. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk. Note that the graphene 'floating body' is narrower at the tope than the bottom, because the animal grew in-between forming the early top and the more recent bottom graphene.  

The soap bubble and aerographene concepts don’t mean that the small ballont problem is solved as they are really just meant to inspire others to come up with their own ballont concepts. In the absence of any lighter-than-air organisms for comparison on Earth there are still many unanswered questions to be considered and that is all part of the fun of speculative evolution.

For example, why would an organism evolve to be lighter-than-air? Is it always lighter-than-air or is it only temporary? How does it control its movement when floating? How does it protect itself from predators? How does it feed? Can it repair or replace its balloon if punctured? How is the lifting gas generated? How fast does the lifting gas leak from the balloon?

If we were only interested in creature design then this would all be sufficient to inspire a range of organisms based on shimmering soap bubbles or black graphene. Speculative evolution requires more than that though. Demonstrating that physics supports the idea and that there is a plausible way for the organism to implement the idea are both important. To be thorough, it is also important to consider whether the proposed organism could have evolved through a series of plausible steps, rather than just spring into being fully formed.

There are various ways that life on Earth already generates hydrogen, such as through fermentation, so that part is not unusual. The formation of chemical laced water to form longer lived bubbles is also fairly common as fish, frogs, snails and insects are already known to do this. A soap bubble based ballont as shown in the previous article therefore seems reasonably plausible.

On the other hand, the formation of graphene is more challenging to justify in a series of steps and I cannot give a solution to this. Graphene does have the ability to absorb light efficiently at all wavelengths, which is why it is black after all. A plausible evolutionary path could involve algae or plants in low light environments developing graphene for photosynthesis related reasons. Since hydrogen can be produced by algae as part of the nitrogen fixing process perhaps forests of lighter-than-air pitch black plants could feasibly evolve. That is however an idea for another time but perhaps it will eventually appear on my recently created blog. It describes the tidally locked world Khthonia, which orbits twin red dwarfs.

Finally, I am very grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this matter in this blog and I hope that they inspire people to develop their own ideas in this area. Please comment to let everyone know what you think about graphene and its possibilities.