Creative Science

One meets many interesting people to interview, those that have climbed mountains, run businesses and made millions but up until, the day I met Sir Harry Kroto I had never met a man who had discovered a natural substance never identified before but which could change the way the world powers itself.

Sir Harry Kroto was in London to give a lecture at the Royal Institution and we conducted our interview in its basement, sitting on bar stools not 4 feet from Michael Faraday’s lab – where he invented the technology behind the electric motor.

Sir Harry discovered the third form of carbon, known as C60. It wouldn’t be fair to say he came across it by accident, because he has been searching for something, even though it wasn’t that. It’s a bit  like searching for a pound coin which you’d lost down the sofa but finding a wad of £10 notes instead.

Despite the fact that I had never heard of C60 and I’m guessing you haven’t either, it is one of those discoveries that could have an impact on the way the whole world lives.

Carbon in some form has been known for millennia. Who knows what they called it, but even the Neanderthals would have known of carbon, because when you burn wood, you get charcoal and graphite which are forms of carbon.  Diamonds are another form of carbon, although probably not as well known by Neanderthals. The third form of carbon is C60 perhaps the least imaginatively named but it was discovered in 1985, by Sir Harry Kroto and his colleagues Rick Smalley, Bob Curl and the students Jim Heath, Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu.

Kroto and his colleagues were looking at what was going on in a carbon star. Almost immediately they noticed something odd.  Kroto tells me “We had signals for some small carbon species, and then we got a massive signal for one with 60 carbons. Now 60 is a special number…. Even the Babylonians realised that, .. [they called it]the hexadecimal system. 5 goes into it, 10 goes into it, 6 goes into it, 3 goes into it. I had the strong gut feeling that it was so beautiful a solution that it just had to be right.”

Odd though it is to non-scientists, the sole fact that the phenomenon they were analysing was so associated with the number 60 – was apparently an unmistakable signal that what they had stumbled on, was very significant indeed.

That discovery earned Kroto and his colleagues the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.

The fact that we are sitting next to Michael Farady’s lab is no accident. In 1831 Faraday showed that electricity could be made by a magnet moving inside a wire coil. It paved the way for every electric motor we use today.  It was a breakthrough that changed the world. Scientists believe we need a new Faraday moment, a disruptive technology that is going to power our global economy with clean, cheap, low-carbon energy and the C60 could provide just that.

Rather shockingly, the world is abundant in energy resources, we just don’t know how to access them properly. For example, enough energy from sunlight falls on the earth In a couple of hours to supply the energy needs of mankind for a whole year — we just need to be able to harness it on a much bigger scale than we can do now.

The C60 molecule should enable us to take a much bigger step in harnessing that power and providing clean energy to the world,  What you have in a solar cell is a molecule that can accept the sun’s rays and separate the electron, which is for electricity, from the positive charge. C60 is shaped like a ball and the electrons have a fatal attraction for that ball and quickly jump top it.  It’s the best molecule for storing those electrons. Therefore it has massively improved the potential for boosting the efficiency of the solar industry. In fact it can increase the efficiency of a solar cell by a factor of about 10.

Kroto’ father was a German refugee tailor who started a business printing messages on balloons. He insisted that his son Harry concentrate on science and maths. But Harry’ first interest was art and graphics.

He tells me that his interest in design and architecture enabled him to quickly understand the shape of the C60 molecule because it was so similar to other shapes he had seen in architecture. In fact the molecule is also known as a Fullerene , buckyball and the Buckminsterfullerene., so-called because it resembles the architectural dome-shaped building of Richard Buckminster Fuller, which Kroto had been reading about and so much admired.

The lesson of Kroto’s discovery isn’t just one about the serendipity of finding something important. It’s about the irony that in researching something of no obvious use, you can actually find something which can revolutionise the world. It’s about the importance of studying something for the sake of knowledge. It’s about the importance of fundamental research.

As his wife waits in the background to drag him to another meeting and the officials from the Royal Institution hover close by to take him to a briefing of their own, almost as an aside he tells me “I’m very different from everybody else I think, because I don’t do things that are important on a large scale. I do things that are important to me from an intellectual point of view, and that’s why we did this experiment. It was not important, it didn’t look important beforehand, and that’s a very important factor. That the discovery was made in an experiment which did not look important.”

Kroto leaves me with the words of another famous scientist, Louis Pasteur:  “Fortune favours only the prepared mind”. It is, Kroto believes,  “extremely important to prepare a mind with as broad an interest, and real interest at a deep level, as possible.” In other words, the more general your interest, the more advance you can make in a specific field.

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