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Nanotechnology can make possible buildings that will not fall down in earthquakes, bridges that will not fall down and airplanes that are so light that if the engines fail they will glide.

Sir Harold Walter Kroto,
Was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering work in the field of Nanoscience in 1996

Nanotechnology: Panacea for Chaos

Sir Harold Walter Kroto, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering work in the field of Nanoscience in 1996, was born in 1939. After his Postdoctoral work at the National Research Council ( Ottawa, Canada) and Bell Telephone Laboratories ( Murray Hill, NJ USA), he started his academic career at the University of Sussex ( Brighton) in 1967. In 1996 he was knighted for his contributions to chemistry and later that year received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of C60 Buckminsterfulleren, a new form of carbon.

As a part of Amity Nobel Laureates Lecture Series, Sir Kroto delivered a lecture at Amity Campus, Noida on 29 th March 2006 on nanoscience. Sandhya Sharma of Amity EduMedia attended this exclusive session.

Here are the excerpts:

Evolution has developed this machine in our body that traps oxygen in your lungs and transfers it where it’s needed. It is very sophisticated, infinitely more sophisticated than the drugs that have ever been invented. The 21 st century is a time when you young people will actually work out how to develop your own molecular machines to be as sophisticated and effective as hemoglobin is. In his famous quotation Don Mark, a columnist in the New York Tribune says, “If you make people think they are thinking they’ll love you. But if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”

Amazing world of nanotechnology

I will say a little bit about my molecule C60. It came from outer space. So people who go off to research have to realize, they might be looking in the wrong place. People who were thinking about finding C60 were trying to make it. But in fact it was from experiments based on radio astronomy in 1975-1985 that uncovered this molecule. The really important and interesting thing about research is that sometimes it is found in the most unexpected places.

We made molecular shock absorbers. For instance, we can now make springs out of molecules. This is nanotechnology. We are at a stage where we have now made devices out of molecules like this. And that’s one of my perspectives about nanotechnology.

The amazing thing about nanotubes is that they do not snap. Carbon fibres that have revolutionized many aspects of materials will snap if you try to bend them. We have made nanowires -- little, conductive, minute wires with insulation around them. These could be the first links between molecular transistors in the next phase of molecular electronics.

So how small is nanotechnology? This will give you an idea of the scale of nanotechnology, it is very small. Let’s shrink the earth down to the size of a football, that’s a factor of a 100 million and now if I shrink the football to the same amount we get the size of the ‘bucky ball’ (C60) our discovery. So the ratio of the earth to a soccer ball, which is 100 million (10 8) is the same as the soccer ball is to a molecule of size of C60. So we are now building things which are 100 million times smaller than a soccer ball. That’s nanotechnology. The ratio is this and that is the last fundamental constant of any significance.

We need some young people who are really brilliant because this is a massive problem. If we are going to use these technologies we have to produce a bundle of 10 15, a thousand million million tubes, all stuck together, all the same diameter. This is a very tall order, but we know it should be possible, but we have no idea at the moment how to do it. If we do that we will have a material that will be 100 times stronger than steel and 1/6 th the weight.

That will mean that we can build buildings that will not fall down in earthquakes, bridges that will not fall down, you can build airplanes that are so light that if the engines fail they will glide. We will be able to have microelectronics. We’ll have supercomputers in our wristwatches. We might even one day be able to take all the knowledge that we have known in our wristwatch and tap it into our brain, so you would not have to go to university. We might be able to use that creative energy to go on from what is already known. The things that we have done in the last hundred years look miraculous, but they look fairly obvious now. But in a hundred years time, wouldn’t that be wonderful if you didn’t have to go to university you can just have as much knowledge as I have.

Molecular dynamics

Molecules are dynamic. The drug industry has only rested until now on drugs that are static and stable. You can now go on to think about drugs that are dynamic and can move around. We can take advantage of these fantastic properties.

And so now I come to molecular machines, as this is nanotechnology for me. As oxygen is taken in, in your lungs, what happens is a small change, and that pushes a lever, and as it moves it changes the whole shape of the hemoglobin molecule. Max Perot spent 22 years of his life working out how this worked and finally made this breakthrough for which he got the Nobel Prize. But he is also the person who created a laboratory for molecular biology which produced a dozen Nobel Prizes. So, that is nanotechnology.

We have hexagonal graphite sheets of carbon which can make round cages, elongated cages, small and big rings, nanotubes, conducting nano wires and springs. This sheet is really flexible, it can make flat sheets, positively curved sheets, positively and negatively curved sheets and even more interestingly curved sheets.

India and nuclear weapons

As a firm believer in the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the world, he expressed his firm belief that India as a country of peace can lead the way.

He says, “I believe India could take the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons. Young people can make it happen. We already have enough nuclear bombs to get rid of the whole world a hundred times over. We don’t need to add to that anymore.”

A few hundred years ago a concentrated source of energy was discovered in the fossil fuels, essentially the energy of old sunlight, trapped by life and buried by the earth. Humanity has exploited this resource with all the restraint of a fox in a chicken house. The perspective of the politician does not usually extend beyond the next election, the unborn have no vote, whereas the easiest way to get the votes of the majority is to promise them increases in their power to consume. Among all these people there seems to be a general vague expectation, if they think of the matter at all, that scientists are sure to find some way to rescue future generations from the chaos into which the present one is rocking them.

 Sustainability and nanoscience

Genetic engineering is not new. It has been done by people for thousands of years. The wheat that you eat today was genetically engineered by human beings by manipulating things 8000 to 10,000 years ago.

By far the most important question today is sustainability. The fundamental sciences of sustainability are the molecular sciences: chemistry, molecular physics, biological chemistry and the nanosciences. I think we have to solve this problem by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. I do not think that we can in any way continue at any sort of level of this use of energy that we have at the present times unless we solve that problem, i.e., is taking a bucket of water with some sort of a catalyst and splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen. We can also think of efficient electricity production and genetic development of wheat that can fix this. Those are the only three ways if we want to continue at any cost. We will go down if we do not solve these problems. There is no way about it.

On education and spreading awareness

I do workshops with small children. Since I cannot go everywhere, I am using the Internet media to reach out to as many children as possible.

Multicultural education

 “We have to have our kids going to schools with kids from every possible different religion and nationality. We want global citizenship where we do not think about nationalism, patriotism and borders. The only place where one should be patriotic is the cricket field. It is not allowed anywhere else because we have one world and we have to work together to solve the massive problems that we face. Carl Sagan’s book ‘Science as a candle in the dark’ tells us about the dangers of living in a world of single faith systems.”

 

Let’s get on to the international aspect. I do not want to see any more single faith schools. Children in USA, Israel, Pakistan and other countries are being brought up in single faith institutions. I feel that the creation of single faith indoctrination education schools is the most dangerous thing. We see the example of that throughout the world today. It’s happening in my country, the UK, and the future is grim.

Richard Fayman, a scientist says that “Freedom to doubt is an important matter in sciences and I believe in other fields. It was born out of struggle, and it was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure”. In fact in the 15 th and 16 th centuries in Europe you were burnt to death for doubting. We are little bit further in some countries today. Recent newspapers which tell us about the possible execution of someone for changing his faith really worries me that in the 21 st century we still have that sort of possibility allowed by politicians. It is very dangerous situation. I do not want to forget the importance of that struggle and by default let it fall away. If you know that you are sure and you have a chance to change the situation. I want to demand this freedom from future generations. It is the most important thing. That some of us are fighting for your freedom to question and doubt authority.

 

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