From diamonds, the world's hardest mineral, to the soft graphite used in pencils, the many forms of the versatile element carbon have been used and appreciated by humans for centuries.
Now visitors to this year’s prestigious Royal Society Summer Exhibition are to learn how cutting edge nanotechnology research at The University of Nottingham will lead to a new generation of exciting carbon-based products.
Academics from the University will be using interactive exhibits, origami models and conjuring tricks to help members of the public — and potential students — understand nanotechnology: the science of the very small, from one thousandth of a metre right down to less than one nanometre, one billionth of a metre.
Carbon is a special element because bonds are easily made between its atoms. Using nanotechnology, the Nottingham scientists can re-arrange the atoms of the element to form complex tiny structures, such as buckminsterfullerenes — or Buckyballs — tiny cages made up of 60 carbon atoms.
Working in collaboration with partners at The University of Oxford, the Nottingham researchers are using these nanocages and cylindrical carbon nanostructures known as nanotubes to trap individual atoms or molecules and to create unique materials.
Nanotubes can be used as miniscule test tubes to control chemical reactions at the molecular level enabling them to build products with specific structure and properties such as mechanical strength. The atoms incarcerated in fullerene cages and molecules inserted in carbon nanotubes could also lead to the development of the next generation of smaller and more powerful computing devices.
Dr Andrei Khlobystov of The University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry said: “This is the oldest and most prestigious public science event in the UK and it gives us as scientists the opportunity to communicate what we do in the lab to the public and create a sense of excitement about our work. Events like these are crucial in enthusing potential students who may be considering science as a career.”
Dr Sam Tang, Public Awareness Scientist, added: “It’s all about giving people the chance to strike up a dialogue with scientists in an open and friendly environment. Nanotechnology is something we see in the news and read about in the newspapers but often people won’t really understand what it’s all about. At this exhibition visitors will see that it’s not something to be scared of but can in fact be used to improve our way of life.”
Dr Matthew McFall from the Learning Sciences Research Institute at The University of Nottingham will be providing the magic tricks. He added: “At the LSRI I am researching how ‘wonder’ and ‘wondering’ might be generated to boost learning. There are many curious and memorable facets of carbon and it is a great pleasure for us to be presenting them at the Royal Society for the appreciation of fellow carbon-based lifeforms.”
The Nottingham and Oxford team are one of just 23 research groups from across the country chosen by the Royal Society to exhibit at the event on the strength and quality of their work.
The free event, running from June 30 to Thursday July 3 at the Royal Society’s headquarters at Carlton House Terrace in London, is expected to attract more than 4,000 visitors who will be able to learn about all aspects of science, engineering and technology —including space missions to explore distant planets, bionic eye implants, and using computers to predict health epidemics.