BBC World News - Horizons

An Insight into the Future of Global Business

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The third series continues our journey across the globe looking at the cutting edge science and technology that will shake up our lives, our economies, our businesses and the world as we know it.

Key megatrend: Energy



Meeting Sir Harry Kroto

Sir Harry was in London to give a lecture at the Royal Institution and conducted our interview in its basement, sitting on bar stools not four feet from Michael Faraday’s lab – where he invented the technology behind the electric motor.

He discovered the third form of carbon, known as C60. Carbon in some form has been known for millennia. The Neanderthals would have known of carbon because when you burn wood, you get charcoal and graphite which are forms of carbon. Diamonds are another form of carbon. But the third form was discovered in 1985, by Sir Harry Kroto and his colleagues Rick Smalley, Bob Curl and the students Jim Heath, Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu.

The discovery has created a whole new area of organic chemistry, and some interesting applications are coming forward now.

Kroto and his colleagues stumbled across the discovery almost by accident. They were looking at what was going on in a carbon star. Almost immediately they noticed something odd. Kroto tells me “We had signals for some small carbon species, and then we got a massive signal for one with 60 carbons. Now 60 is a special number…. Even the Babylonians realised that, … 5 goes into it, 10 goes into it, 6 goes into it, 3 goes into it”

Understanding the C60 molecule has been a huge boon to the solar power industry. What you have in a solar cell is a molecule that can accept the sun’s rays and separate the electron, which is for electricity, from the positive charge. C60 is shaped like a ball and the electrons have a fatal attraction for that ball and quickly jump to it. It’s the best molecule for storing those electrons. Therefore it has massively improved the potential for boosting the efficiency of the solar industry.

Kroto’s father was a German refugee tailor who started a business printing messages on balloons. He insisted that his son Harry concentrate on science and maths. But Harry’s first interest was art and graphics.

He tells me that his interest in design and architecture enabled him to understand that the shape of the C60 molecule was so similar to other shapes he had seen in architecture. In fact the molecule is also known as a fullerene, so-called because it resembles the architectural dome-shaped building of Richard Buckminster Fuller, which Kroto had been reading about and so much admired.

Kroto leaves me with the words of another famous scientist, Louis Pasteur: “Fortune favours only the prepared mind”. It is, Kroto believes, “extremely important to prepare a mind with as broad an interest, and real interest at a deep level, as possible.” In other words, the more general your interest, the more advance you can make in a specific field.

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