Saturday, October 9, 2010

Great deals and nano particles

This is the BikeNüt Umlaut. I’ve talked about it, described its attributes, and discussed its exceptional value a few times. It comes fully equipped with a Shimano Ultegra gruppo and Easton Circuit wheels. It has white tape wrapped around the handlebar and a white saddle. This assembly, of course, is the standard. If you wanted, or needed, different components on the same frame, no problem—it could be done.

The Shimano Ultegra components have long established a standard for reliability. There are few things that go wrong with it. Shimano, the company, is a bit like Porsche; they make gradual improvements on their products, preferring to work on what they have rather than rely on sudden innovation. As a result, things work a little better than they did in their previous manifestation. 

Shifting is smooth with Ultegra, and it is for a reason that Shimano had named its cassette Hyperglide. Shifting under load, when for example we are beginning to climb and realize that we are on the wrong gear, can be a tricky operation at best, but Ultegra increases the chances of its  success. 

Of course, if you want unerring precision, you should go with the Shimano DuraAce Di2 electronic group, and you should be prepared to pay for it.
The Umlaut is light and stiff, with its monocoque frame design, handles beautifully, accelerates quickly, and its slender seat stays make it comfortable to ride over long distances. It could be yours for $2,650 USD.
There are bikes that are heavier than this and lighter than this. Weight is a relative measure, and what is considered lightweight today will be thought of as positively burdensome tomorrow. Already there are road-racing machines that are attempting to break the 6 lbs. barrier. Soon, with new technology, even this boundary will be a thing of the past. All we need is a quantum leap--literally.
We hear the term nanotechnology used in combination with bicycles with increasing frequency. In part, this name calling is the result of marketing tactics. Since the current technology (monocoque design carbon frames) has leveled the field, companies look for marginal advantages. The promising field of nanotechnology may offer such advantages. We are told that it makes bikes lighter and stronger, but we don’t know exactly why or how should be so. One Italian manufacturer claims that nano-alloys, tiny amounts of metal integrated into the fibers of carbon, help absorbing impact more efficiently and prevent the sudden failure of its frames. I’m sure that there is an advantage in their use, but we are not quite at the point in the development of nanotechnology, that we are able to employ structures such as nanotubes and buckyballs. Still, there is progress.

On October 5, 2010, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the team of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the prize for physics for their work on graphene, a relatively new material that promises a revolutionary—not just evolutionary—range of new applications. Why am I bringing this up? Because, when this material is produced industrially together with appropriately light bonding agents, it’s going to make carbon fiber disappear as a choice material for bicycle frames and accessories very quickly.

Graphene consists of a sheet of  atoms of carbon, arranged in a lattice-like fashion, the thickness of a single atom—as two dimensional as you can get. To repeat an example that has already been reiterated innumerable times, a sheet of graphene, resting on a support no larger than a pencil point, could support an entire truck. This is no hyperbole: graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, stronger than Kevlar, stronger even than the nanotubes, also made of carbon atoms, that haven’t yet made it to the market. It’s also the lightest: a sheet as large as a football field would weigh about 1 gram.
Applications will vary from new, faster, cheaper, and lighter semiconductors, extremely efficient batteries than last a long time and require little time to be recharged (bye, gasoline), solar cells that can be part of the surface of buildings, rather than “things” on the roofs, and of course the stuff of which cars and, yes, bikes are made. How about a bike, made of graphene, that weighs less than a pound? How about a new kind of bearings, consisting of two graphene tubes, one inside the other, and producing no friction at all? Can you imagine the potential? A pair of sneakers would be heavier than that, your bicycle gloves, your sunglasses, or whatever. It would be just like cycling on a cloud.

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