Hey Bill Nye! Can We Use Giant Magnets to Build a Space Elevator?

Bill Nye answers a question submitted by Nick: is it possible to take two giant magnets and use the repulsion force between the two to lift objects into space?

Nick: Nick here. I was wondering if it’s possible to take two giant magnets and use the repulsion force between the two to lift objects into space or can we set up stages along the way up and how that attraction and repulsion force send a type of space elevator up to the moon or anywhere we want to go. Let me know what you think.

Bill Nye: Nick, Nick, Nick. This is an interesting question. Let me say though starting out we all when you play with magnets and you feel the repulsive force it seems strong. But notice that it acts over a very short distance. Just nominally it goes – it’s not perfect but you can estimate it by saying it goes off as the cube of the distance. So if you have magnets this far apart and you make them twice that far apart they only haven an eighth as much umph. So using a magnet to push things up as high as the atmosphere would take an enormously strong magnet and where would that energy come from? And to give you an idea of the kind of energy we’re talking about the particle collider in Switzerland which we call CERN, the Center for Nuclear Research but in French the adjective is at the end. That takes the electricity of a small city to keep protons going in a circle, just protons. So just imagine how much magnetism you would need to push something of reasonable mass up into the sky. It would take a huge amount of energy. So shooting from the hip I’d say it’s really not possible.

With that said I like the way you think. Then you also referred to using stages to get the magnet, this magnetic car or craft pushed up. Keep in mind that whatever you push it up from has to be pushed from a place which is somehow anchored to the Earth or magnetically repulsed from the Earth. So it becomes really difficult practically to have a stack of magnets that’s stable that has all that energy required to create that much magnetism. You probably couldn’t do it. But that’s very creative. That was cool. Carry on Nick.

Bill Nye answers a question submitted by Nick: is it possible to take two giant magnets and use the repulsion force between them to lift objects into space? Or can we set up stages along the way and use the attraction and repulsion force to build a space elevator to the moon, or anywhere else we may want to go?

Nick is definitely onto something. Building a reliable space elevator has been the dream of many physicists, beginning with the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tsiolkovsky boldly envisioned a tower extending from the surface of the Earth into its atmosphere in geostationary orbit.

Perhaps the most popular source of the idea came with Arthur C. Clarke's novel, The Fountains of Paradise, featuring engineers who construct a space elevator from the top of a mountain. A career engineer and science educator himself, Bill Nye tackles the practicality of a space elevator — at least one relying on magnets — that has captured the imagination of generations of scientists.

As it turns out, the repulsion force in magnets is strong but at very short distances. And any spacecraft one would hope to lift from the surface of the planet would be — well, it would be large. This doesn't automatically disqualify magnets; it simply means that gigantic magnets are called for. And gigantic magnets must be powered by a gigantic power source.

Just to power protons around CERN, a particle accelerator straddling the Swiss/French border, the amount of energy needed could power a small city. And to further complicate matters, balancing a large object that is being pushed up requires stabilizing it, i.e. a place for it to be pushed up from.

Still, getting to space at less expense has driven the success of companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, so there is certainly a market for whoever can get there with less overhead. It might be you, Nick! Good luck!

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less