It is incredible how Buckminster Fuller, “the little, penniless, unknown individual was able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity”. Like Feynman, he had a vision. But the two men differed in that Fuller devoted his life to provide “more and more life support for everybody, with less and less resources” by being practical, utilitarian, and economical. His lifelong experiment to create affordable and environmentally sustainable shelter resulted in the famous Dymaxion House, a consequence of his extensive analyses on geodesic domes and structures. However, it was not mass produced due to high materials cost and its “one size fits all” approach. Similarly, his Dymaxion car, though having potential in terms of mileage per gallon of gasoline, was not implemented due to an unfortunate car accident, which killed the driver of his Dymaxion car. Though his inventions did not result in huge success in his lifetime, his manipulation of geometric structures sparked interest in the generations to come. From chemistry to biology, his ideas continue to be resounding and extremely practical.
Figure 1. Fuller in front of his geodesic dome.
The Bucky Ball: A Building Block
Little did Fuller know that his legacy would transverse the decades into the field of chemistry. In 1985, a small group of chemists, Kroto, Smalley, and Curl earned a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering fullerenes, a class of closed cage structures, largely inspired by Fuller’s geodesic dome. Though C60 is the most common form of the fullerenes, other derivatives such as C70 and C80 have been extensively used as well.
Figure 2. Buckminsterfullerene C60
The discovery in 1985 opened doors to modern research in buckypaper, a thin film of nanotubes which consist of fullerenes weaved together. Scientists have made great strides in improving the strength and bonding of buckypaper, resulting in material ten times lighter than steel and 500 times stronger when pressed together. Combined with its good conductivity, buckpaper can potentially replace steel making and improve building material, cars, planes, military armor, and stealth technology! Further, if exposed to an current, buckypaper could be used to illuminate computer and television screens. This is beneficial, as it could be more energy-efficient, lighter, and could allow for a more uniform level of brightness than current cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and liquid crystal display (LCD) technology. Though the question of waste and its potential impacts on the environment remain unknown, the fact that buckypaper requires so little to make such large improvements is a testament to Fuller’s vision of doing more with less.
Figure 3. Magnified buckypaper structure.
Bucky’s vision does not stop with the buckypaper though. Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have also played around with copper nanotubes…by coating them on the inner walls of cooking pots! This novel technique can increase the efficiency of energy transfer from the pot to the water it holds by an order of magnitude. Why? Well, under the appropriate magnification, the surface of the cooking vessel looks hairy, whose structure is ideal for transfer of energy. Like the hirsute microvilli lining our intestines, the hair like structures of the nanotubes increase the surface area, improving energy transfer greatly. This means that not only does the water get hot faster, but we would start actually cooking with it sooner, saving time AND money. The only factor withholding them from mass production is the safety concern involving nanotubes and their unknown reactivity with foods and other biological materials.
Company representatives also believe that the same material have potential in improving efficiency of solar thermal power plants by applying “hairy” solar cells, or with “popcorn ball” dye-sensitized solar cells to increase light absorption.
Figure 4. Magnified hairs on carbon nanotubes.
Molecular Bucky Structures?
Aside from the materials world, DNA nanotubes and synthetic nanostructures have much potential application into extremely microscopic electronic and biomedical innovations. A research group has revealed the 3D character of DNA nanotubules, rings and spirals, each a few hundred thousandths the diameter of a human hair! Their research is one step towards resolving the construction of molecular-level forms in three dimensions by using gold nanoparticles. “When placed on single-stranded DNA, these flexible molecular tile arrays bend away from the nanoparticles, curling into closed loops or forming spring-like spirals or nested rings, roughly 30 to 180 nanometers in diameter”. For the very first time, DNA nanotubules can be specifically directed to curl into closed rings with high yield! It is utterly amazing how scientists can make strides on the molecular level as well!
Figure 5. Representation of carbon nanotubes transforming into DNA helical structures.
“Smart” Bucky Materials
How can fullerenes be “smart”, you may ask? Italian and Swiss researchers have shown that carbon nanotubes show promise in the search to find ways to “bypass” faulty brain wiring. Neurons and carbon nanotubes surprisingly are both electrically conductive and form tight contacts with each other. Unlike the metal electrodes that are currently used in research and clinical applications, the nanotubes can create shortcuts between the distal and proximal compartments of the neuron, resulting in enhanced neuronal excitability. This result is extremely relevant for the emerging field of neuro-engineering and neuroprosthetics, because the nanotubes could be used as a new building block of novel “electrical bypass” systems for treating traumatic injury of the central nervous system. This new innovation offer an alternative to metal parts used for deep brain stimulation for patients with Parkinson’s disease or severe depression. Not only that, these whole new class of “smart” materials may be used in a wide range of potential neuroprosthetic applications! Before that happens though, a deeper understanding of neuromechanisms and their reactivity with carbon nanomaterials in the body is warranted.
When Fuller commented that “it is highly feasible to care of all of humanity higher at a higher standard of living without having anyone profit at the expense of others so that everyone can enjoy the whole earth”, he was not joking. Whether it be the “smart” brain material or the hairy teapots, they are all a testament to Bucky’s practical vision. Though in the experimental stage, these innovative materials, all originating with the buckminsterfullerne, continue to gather momentum. The chances of it losing popularity and importance will not die out anytime soon.