Wonder in carbon land: how do you hold a molecule?

Carbon land Structural diagrams of different types of nanostructures based on sp2-carbon: (a) graphene, (b) fullerene C60 containing a nitrogen atom (shown in blue), and (c) carbon nanotube.

University of Nottingham; University of Oxford

Carbon is a unique element because bonds are easily made between carbon atoms. This allows carbon to form complex structures such as the ‘Buckyball’ a tiny cage made up of 60 carbon atoms. Scientists are using these nanocages and other structures known as nanotubes to create unique products and to explore the properties of atoms.

‘Once an atom is contained within a nanocage it can’t react with anything allowing us to examine the atom's individual properties,’ explains Andrei Khlobystov, a chemist at the University of Nottingham. ‘Nanotubes are used to contain reactions, just like a regular test tube, but in a much more controlled way.’

When a reaction takes place in a normal test tube the product can be unpredictable as branches can form at random points along the chains of molecules. Within the miniscule confines of a nanotube branching is not possible so the products of reactions are uniform chains of molecules.

‘We pump molecules into a nanotube, and use light or heat to set off the reaction,’ says Andrei. ‘The molecules react to form polymers or plastics whose properties are entirely based on the molecular structure. So by precise control of the molecular structure you can build products with specific properties, such as mechanical strength.’

'Come along to our exhibit and get involved. We'll be building giant fullerene origami models which you can add your own graffiti art to. Leave your signature or a scribble. We're also going to have plenty of hands-on activities, give-aways and demos. There's even going to be a magician performing illusions related to quantum computing. We look forward to seeing you!' say the exhibit team.

Carbon Nanomaterials Group, School of Chemistry, University of Nottingham