What’s so special about carbon?
Multi-talented carbon is full of surprises. The 1960s saw the advent of strong, light carbon fibre, while more recently, scientists have unearthed two entirely new forms of carbon with record-breaking properties of strength and versatility. What will be next?
Strong carbon fibres (1964)
William Watt FRS
Better aircraft propellers were the target of Watt and his team at RAE Farnborough when they worked out how to synthesise strong, stiff carbon fibre composite. Its high-flying role continues today as the material for the fuselage of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Incredibly light and strong, carbon fibre is a material of choice for high-performance racing cars, bicycles and sailing boats, as well as for top-end sports racquets and golf clubs. Designers and architects are also experimenting with it as a building material.
Carbon buckyballs (1985)
Harry Kroto FRS
Football-shaped Buckminsterfullerene is a single molecule made of 60 carbon atoms. Kroto was studying how carbon molecules form in interstellar space when he chanced upon this novel kind of carbon. By vaporising a piece of graphite with a laser, Kroto and colleagues Robert Curl and Richard Smalley unexpectedly created tiny, hollow spheres of carbon, that had been predicted theoretically but never seen before. Today, research into fullerenes – carbon structures like buckyballs and buckytubes – is still going on.
Andre Geim FRS, Kostya Novoselov FRS
If you draw with a pencil, you’re producing a line made out of many stacked sheets of graphene. Geim and Novoselov used sticky tape to separate out these sheets, each just one carbon atom thick, and were astounded by the properties of this new form of carbon. Stronger than diamond, but stretchier than rubber, graphene conducts heat and electricity better than copper, but it’s impermeable to gases and liquids. It also beats silicon for making fast transistors.