Image credits: TLaoPhotography/shutterstock.com
Over 30 years ago a team of scientists discovered carbon molecules in a cage-like form, a molecule now known as C60. This event catalyzed the further discoveries of carbon nanotubes, and graphene, marking the advent of nanotechnology.
Graphite, the naturally occurring, stable form of carbon, has been known to scientists for hundreds of years. However, the identification of the other carbon structures did not occur until recent decades, beginning with the discovery of C60 in 1985.
The discovery of each of these forms of carbon structure has been considered as revolutionary breakthroughs, having a significant impact on the landscape of technology. It is these forms of carbon that made the revolution in nanotechnology possible, a field of study that is rapidly growing, with new and influential applications being designed and tested each year.
Revolutionary Fullerene Discovery
The discovery of C60 happened at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1985. Years earlier, in 1970, Japanese theoretical chemist, Eiji Osawa, had predicted that carbon existed in a stable 60-atom molecule structure, but it wasn’t until the 80s that this was discovered.
British chemist Harry Kroto had requested to work alongside Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at their laboratories in Texas. In his lab, Smalley had developed supersonic cluster beam apparatus that had the capability of vaporizing material into its atoms. Kroto wanted to use the technique that Smalley had developed to prove his theory that carbon chains originated in stars, by simulating the chemical conditions that exist in the atmosphere of carbon stars. It was during these studies that the stability of 60-atom carbon clusters became apparent.
The team had discovered what are now known as fullerenes, which are the third known form of pure carbon, after diamond and graphite. There were some who were initially skeptical about the discovery, as they had expected C60 to be flat rather than cage-like, however, the skepticisms were put to rest and the fullerene discovery had two major immediate impacts on the scientific landscape.
The first impact the discovery had was that scientists immediately recognized the unique properties of the molecules, identifying them as an ideal building block for new and unconventional materials. They were used to synthesize endohedrals, superconducting fullerene materials, fullerene-assembled solids, and other new materials.
The Advent of Nanotechnology
The second impact that the discovery of fullerenes had was that they inspired the discovery of other carbon allotropes, with a focus on nanoscale materials. As a result of this, two further fullerenes were discovered. Carbon nanotubes were first reported by Sumio Iijima, a Japanese physicist, in 1992. Following this, graphene was discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, at the University of Manchester. These discoveries have been fundamental to the development of nanoscale engineering, which has opened the door to numerous applications in a variety of industries.
Nano-revolution to Impact All Industries
Since the discovery of the fullerenes, there has been a huge boom in research into these molecules, experimenting with their properties and potential uses. In addition to this, much work has focused on the discovery of new nanoparticles, given the unique properties of the carbon molecules that lend themself to unconventional materials and functions, scientists have aimed to discovery more molecules that could be of scientific importance.
This research has resulted in the discovery of numerous nanoparticles, and the creation of various nanomaterials that boast excellent chemical and physical stabilities, low densities and large surface areas. As a result, they have become popular in the design and development of novel applications.
Currently, these nanoparticles are being used to create nanocomponents, and to improve on the functionalities and characteristics of existing materials. Photonic materials, conductive materials, polymers, and biocomposites have all been improved on through this area of research.
Nanopaticles have also been used to create products such as sunscreen, self-cleaning glass, clothing, scratch-resistant coating, and antimicrobial bandages. Further to this, continued important research is taking place globally, which may have even more of an impact. For example, scientists are currently working on developing the use of nanoparticles in the treatment of lung cancer.
A Lasting Legacy
The discovery of C60 led the way to many discoveries and innovations in the field of nanotechnology. It was the key catalyst to creating the boom in research around nanoparticles, which has led to significant advancements in nanomaterials, which continue to be developed for new and important applications.