A Futurist’s Last Act Was to Transform Chemistry–After Death

A Futurist’s Last Act Was to Transform Chemistry—After Death

“Imagine human beings have this tiny little band where you and I can tune in, and we find that that is less than a millionth of reality,” Buckminster Fuller once said. It’s simple to see. This is reality–these are the realities–and you and I can see less than a millionth of reality.” Fuller might best be known today as the architectural designer behind the geodesic dome, but he saw all of his inventions as expressions of a lifelong effort to expand the range of the human mind’s perception of the universe, most of which was invisible to the naked eye.

Fuller met this challenge by developing an elaborate system of geometry, but he was also enthusiastic about the possibilities of scientific instruments. Since the forties, he had marveled at the power of the spectroscope, a device that allowed researchers to analyze matter based on its interactions with radiation. Two years after his death in 1983, it provided the backdrop for the most lasting tribute that he would ever receive–an accidental discovery that would transform the fields of chemistry and nanotechnology forever.

The central player in Fuller’s greatest moment of posthumous glory was Harold W. Kroto, who was born in England in 1939. Kroto studied chemistry at the University of Sheffield, but he seriously contemplated a career in architecture or graphic design. While working at Bell Labs, he made what his wife, Margaret, described as “a kind of pilgrimage” to Fuller’s famous geodesic dome for the United States pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo, and he even thought about writing to Fuller for a job researching “the organized growth of massive urban structures.”

Instead, Kroto went to the University of Sussex to conduct spectroscopic studies of long carbon chains in outer space, which he theorized were generated in the atmospheres of the aging stars known as red giants. In 1984, he saw a chance to test his ideas. A microwave spectroscopist by the name of Robert Cull talked to Kroto about his laser supersonic beam apparatus. This machine, located at Rice University Houston, was designed and built by Richard Smalley. It can produce any type of element in an instant.

After a laser vaporized the material, helium blew it into a vacuum chamber, where it cooled into clusters that could be measured by a mass spectrometer. Curl said that it works well with carbon and could be used to replicate the conditions in a red giant, to determine if long chains appear. Curl was especially interested in whether they might be responsible for the diffuse interstellar bands, which were dark lines in astronomical spectra caused by unidentified matter in the space between the stars.

Since Kroto was enthusiastic, he went to Rice with the Rice team. Smalley was skeptical of Kroto’s “cockamamie theory,” but he decided to give him a chance. The following summer, they scheduled a second visit, which Smalley still saw as an unwelcome interruption: “I thought Harry was sort of a loose nut,” he admitted, “and I just wanted to get rid of him.” To break the news to his graduate students Jim Heath and Sean O’Brien, he asked jokingly, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen?” They responded, “Harry’s coming.”

Their lack of excitement was due to their awareness that similar research had already been conducted at Exxon, which the Houston team attempted to replicate the week before Kroto’s arrival. When they trained the laser on a graphite disk, it worked as expected, but the settings on the computer display led them to overlook a peak for C60, or molecules of sixty carbon atoms. Although Yuan Liu, a graduate student, made a note about the spike, nobody else noticed.

Kroto officially started on September 1, 1985. The first stage of their work was devoted to calibrating the equipment, with helium used as a carrier gas, and when they ran a spectrometric analysis, they noticed the C60 peak. Over the following days, as they introduced hydrogen and nitrogen into the helium stream, pronounced peaks continued to be seen for large clusters with even numbers of carbon atoms. They noticed a huge spike in the number of helium atoms at 60 atoms when they raised the backing pressure. This was the moment that caught their attention for the first-time.

Under some conditions, C60 was dozens of times more abundant than most of the other clusters, implying that there was something special about the number 60 itself. It was clear that the molecule had no reactivity, which led to speculation about a closed structure without dangling bond. Soon the conversation turned to the possibility a sphere. Smalley looked at the other domes. “Who was that guy who built those domes?”

Like Kroto, Smalley had seen the Montreal Expo Dome, but he had never given much thought to Fuller. The team didn’t have a crystallographer, and no one could remember the details of the dome–they thought that it was made entirely of hexagons, which was consistent with the geometry of carbon bonds. Kroto once made a paper star dome with a kit, which he thought might be pentagons.

For now, they decided to look into Fuller. Smalley, recalling the graphite structure, said, “Here, afterall, we had a hexagonal sheets.” Smalley found Robert Marks’ book The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller at the university library. Leafing through it, he somehow missed the numerous images of pentagons in geodesic structures–an essential part of their geometry. He was most struck by a photo of the Union Tank Car Dome in Louisiana, which seemed at first glance to consist solely of hexagons. The team continued their conversation at dinner. They discussed possible solutions and sketched on napkins. Jim Heath purchased a box of jelly beans or gummy bears. He tried to create a structure using toothpicks and the connectors from candy pieces, but it proved impossible. The hexagons fell apart too quickly to form an enclosed shape.

Smalley was tackling the problem at his own house. He began to make hexagons from paper after hours of unsuccessful attempts to create a program that would generate the solution. When he stuck them together with tape, they wouldn’t produce a sphere without overlapping, and even if he cheated slightly, they refused to make a closed surface. He felt discouraged and went to the kitchen at midnight.

“Although its origins were later disputed, Kroto was almost certainly the one who suggested “buckminsterfullerene,” which the others accepted with misgivings. At one point, according to Kroto, Smalley said bluntly, “Your name sucks.””

It was the kind of quiet moment that was ideal for creative insights, and he suddenly remembered what Kroto had said about the pentagons. He cut out a piece with five sides, and when he taped hexagons around it, it formed a shallow bowl. Adding one layer at a time, he ended up with a sphere with twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons. The sphere’s 60 vertices were identical, which indicated that the structure could be hollowed out of carbon atoms. It also seemed to be remarkably stable. The paper ball bounced when Smalley dropped it on the ground.

The following day, Smalley called the office from the car phone in his black Audi, relating his discovery to Curl’s answering machine. Smalley placed the sphere on the coffee table when the group regrouped. Kroto, “ecstatic” and overwhelmed by the sphere’s beauty, began to realize that this was an unknown third type of carbon. The arrangement of chemical bonds resulted in radically different properties.

Still looking for more information about the polyhedron, Smalley called Bill Veech (chairman of Rice’s mathematics department) and was told that he would consult with one of his students. Veech returned the call and found Curl was there instead. “I could explain this to you in a number of ways,” Veech said, “but what you’ve got there, boys, is a soccer ball.”

None of them had seen the obvious. Twelve pentagons were arranged with twenty hexagons. This arrangement, more commonly known as a “truncated Icosahedron”, was identical to the familiar soccer ball pattern of black and White panels. Heath went to buy one from a sporting goods store, while another student rushed to purchase the campus bookshop’s complete supply of molecular modeling kits, which they used to build the first of many models to come.

The next issue was what to call it. There were many suggestions, but most of them used the suffix “ene”, which indicated a structure that was made up of an alternating single- and double bond ring. They proposed “ballene,” spherene, “soccerene,”” and “carbosoccer,” but “footballene,” which would have confused Americans, was dropped. Although its origins were later disputed, Kroto was almost certainly the one who suggested “buckminsterfullerene,” which the others accepted with misgivings. At one point, according to Kroto, Smalley said bluntly, “Your name sucks.”

They wrote a short piece for Nature, the most prestigious scientific journal, in which they emphasized their approach to the problem of a closed molecule: “Only a spheroidal structure appears likely to satisfy this criterion, and thus Buckminster Fuller’s studies were consulted.” Kroto wanted to include a picture of Heath’s candy framework, but another student had already eaten it. Kroto returned to Sussex in the evening and immediately searched for Heath’s paper star dome. He confirmed that it had twelve pentagons as well as twenty hexagons and sixty verticles.

It was a breakthrough in chemical chemistry that was unrivalled in the past generation. The team discovered that similar structures had been proposed by other chemists David E. H. Jones .. The accidental creation of the structure in a laboratory environment shook the field and it soon became a popular topic. References to “buckyballs”, a term that team members shared amongst themselves, were also published.

Throughout the discussion, Fuller was justifiably prominent. A passing mention of his name had put them on the right track, and the analogy to the dome, which was sometimes seen as fanciful, was really beautiful and exact. In the classic dome, most of the triangles formed hexagonal groups, along with a few strategically placed pentagons. (Fuller and his associate Shoji Sadao had made the underlying structure explicit in their 1974 patent for the Hexa-Pent Dome, which consisted of slightly more than half of a sphere with twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons. )

In 1996, Kroto, Smalley, and Curl were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. All three men have passed away–Robert Curl died on July 3–but the story of buckminsterfullerene has barely begun. Fantastic claims have been made for its possible uses, with many proposals centering on the nanotubes that could be formed by adding rings to the sphere. A closed structure made up of twelve pentagons could contain any number of hexagons but one. This would produce a whole family of molecules called fullerenes.

Although their practical applications are still limited, if their time ever comes, Fuller will have a secure place in the history of nanotechnology, which the fullerenes transformed overnight into a serious field. The buckyball is making an impact in outer space, where it all started. In 2015, the year before Kroto’s death, a spectrum of C60 ions was matched with two previously unidentified diffuse interstellar bands, and just last month, astronomers at the University of Arizona proposed a model of how buckyballs could be produced by dying stars.

Decades before Kroto’s death, Smalley noted the profound implications: “If fullerenes had been present in interstellar…they could provide the first real surfaces within the universe …. How fitting that the geodesic shape which provides such flexibility to modern manmade structures also helps build the very first solid objects.” Fuller would see it as the best possible confirmation of what he believed, and it was one that he deserved. As Smalley rightly concluded, “Buckminster Fuller would have loved it.”

From the book INVENTOR OF THE FUTURE: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright (c) 2022 by Alec Nevala-Lee. To be published on August 2, 2022 by Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Permission granted.

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