C60, Fullerenes and a Nobel Prize
Dr Jonathan Hare

nice C60 pic C60 in tolune

In 1985, following up some pioneering astro-chemical investigations, Harry Kroto and colleagues uncovered the fullerenes, a new allotrope of carbon, the most famous of which is the football molecule C60. This was a classic case of scientific serendipity, and it has stimulated a frenzy of research activity and opened up new fields of study [1].

In 1989 when I arrived at Sussex, C60 could only be made in very tiny amounts, revealed in the data produced by a sensitive instrument called a mass spectrometer. My DPhil project was to continue the astro-chemical investigations by creating laboratory samples of carbon 'dust' or 'soot' to see how they compared with astronomical spectra from space. The experiment was essentially very simple; take two carbon rods (basically pure pencil 'leads'), arrange them so that they are just touching end-to-end and pass a large electrical current through the contact. When you do this a very intense arc is generated. A standard TIG welder (purchased from Halfords) producing 50V at about 200 Amps was used to power the arc. Rather than run the arc in air, helium gas was used producing a black fluffy carbon dust or soot.

Amit and JJ

Amit Sarkar and Jonathan Hare standing by the Bell-Jar carbon arc evaporation equipment.

Soon after starting Amit Sarkar, a final-year project student, joined me and we churned out one soot sample after another measuring the infrared (IR) spectra and keeping meticulous notes. Essential equipment was home-built with the expert help of Sussex's invaluable technicians, Chris Jarvis, Phil Chitty and Pete Simmons. Crucially British Gas (in the guise of Steve Wood) supported my DPhil with an equipment grant. The IR data showed tantalizing glimpses of C60 in the soot as if we were making the first bulk quantities. On the advice of Nick Blagdon, I submitted a sample to Ali Abdul-Sada for analysis by mass spectroscopy who measured the tell-tale signs of C60 in our material. I then mixed some of the soot with benzene and found to our amazement that it produced a red solution from what should have been insoluble carbon. C60 was there, and it was extractable!

Roger Taylor, a very experienced chemist then joined our team. I gave him some of the precious soot we had made and Roger (advised by Jim Hanson) used the elegant technique of column chromatography, to purify and separate C60 and other fullerenes from the soot. With Tony Avent and Jerry Lawless, we managed to record the 'holy grail' of chemical analysis - the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) spectra - of both C60 and C70. This was published in the Chemical Communications - producing one of the highest cited scientific papers since the journal started in 1965 [2].

I was one of the few in the world who could make this new material, and as a young researcher I was in a very unusual and privileged position. I often worked late through the night making as much C60 as I could because everyone wanted to experiment with it. Rather than go all the way home I often used to sleep on Harry's office floor. Eventually one of the cleaners found me and so Harry got to know, he told me that he too had slept in his PhD supervisor's (Richard Dixon) office when he was doing his PhD in the department headed by George Porter. Later on I met (Sir) George Porter and Harry introduced me to him as his 'scientific grandson'!

During these long nights, while the C60 apparatus was cooling down, I would look at the articles and papers that Harry would leave partly finished on his desk. I was able to witness the day-to-day changes of manuscript drafts as they metamorphosed from observations, to rough ideas, to potential new theories and then into elegant and eloquent explanations. To work with a great scientist is a privilege, but to witness this creative process first hand, reading the development of his thoughts and ideas from one night to the next, was a unique and tremendously exciting experience for me - it felt like I was at the heart of science.

Fullerene group

Many of the staff, researchers and students of the Sussex Fullerene Group

The Fullerene group at Sussex flourished under David Walton, Roger Taylor, Kosmas Prassides and Harry Kroto. In the first ten years, the Sussex Fullerene group published over 300 world class scientific articles. Many of the students and researchers from this time are now making important contributions in their own groups. Some of these include Drs Ken McKay, Richard Hallet, Simon Balm, Nicole Grobert, Mauricio Terrones, Kuang Hsu, Douglas Reid, Jonathan Crane, Paul Birkett, Mouhamed Meidine, T. John Dennis, Adam Darwish and Steve Firth. We made time for school students to visit our research group. For example Jan Meering and her class at the Angmering School in West Sussex were the first to make C60 in their own labs. Roddy Vann (St Pauls school, London) designed his own C60 generator at his school and successfully tested it at Sussex. Roddy went on to do a degree, then a PhD in physics and is now a leading light in the UK's Fusion research program.

Bernd and Harry

Bernd Eggen and Harry Kroto at lunch ...

One lunch time in October 1996 Harry Kroto, Gill Watson, Bernd Eggen and I went out as usual to eat, and to chat about various things. When I got back I checked the answer machine and found to my surprise the most wonderful message (which I still have) from the Swedish Academy of Sciences. At the same time Bernd came rushing in, he had just checked the web - Harry had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry!

HWK Nobel Prize

A snap I took of Harry being awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Both Harry and I continue to present hundreds of science talks and workshops every year. In 1994 Harry set up the Vega Science Trust, with Gill Watson as CEO. This gives scientists their own voice to make science television both for terrestrial broadcast and the Internet [3]. I set up the Creative Science Centre (CSC) to help people of all ages make more things within science [4]. I worked in Harry's lab till 2000 and then, supported by a Nesta Fellowship, became self employed to pursue the aims of my CSC. From 2000 to 2006, I was a part of all the BBC/OU Rough Science TV series filmed in exotic locations around the world. I am now a visiting lecturer in Science Communication in Physics at Sussex. Recently with Vega we have made a series of science mini films. Some of these have been put on YouTube and the windmill mini film [5] has had over a half a million views!

[1] H. Aldersey-Williams, The Most Beautiful Molecule. An Adventure in Chemistry (London, Aurum Press, 1995), J. Baggott, Perfect Symmetry: The Accidental Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene (Oxford University Press, 1994), and H. Kroto, 'C60: Buckminsterfullerene, The Celestial Sphere that Fell to Earth', Angewandte Chemie, 31, 2 (1992, 111-129.

[2] R. Taylor, J. P. Hare, A. K. Abdul-Sada, H. W. Kroto, 'Isolation, Separation and Characterisation of the Fullerenes C60 and C70: The Third Form of Carbon', J. Chem. Soc., Chemical Communications (1990) 1423-1425.

[3] Vega Science Trust

[4] The Creative Science Centre

[5] Vega Science Trust mini films


Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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