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Foster throws in the Buckyball - molecule for the millennium

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Sir Norman Foster last week opened a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London devoted to a 'new' molecule with the potential to revolutionise construction techniques. 'Buckyballs and Beyond' takes its name from the molecule in the carbon family, co-discovered by Sir Harry Kroto in 1985 and originally named Buckminsterfullerenes after Foster's mentor Richard Buckminster Fuller - famous largely for the geodesic domes which resemble the molecule's structure.

Scientists are becoming ever more excited about research into the molecule's unique properties of strength which reveals that a material may be possible - by elongating the molecule into 'bucky-tubes' or nanotubes - which is 100 times as strong as steel and a sixth of its weight.

'This is not imagination' said Kroto, one-time winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. 'These are measured properties.'

The exhibition shows how this football-shaped molecule of hexagons and pentagons may also mean that electronic devices such as computers could be built up to 100 times smaller, since the nanotubes can conduct electricity, and that medical science may benefit from a whole new breed of microscopic devices. But for construction, even Arthur C Clarke's 1978 vision of a space elevator linking a shaft from the earth to the moon 250,000 miles away could be possible, due to the strength-to-weight ratios of the molecule. As American Scientist noted last summer, 'none of the materials now known to humankind get close to such strength'.

Foster, speaking at the launch, said that Buckminster Fuller, a tutor of his for many years, was an 'eternal optimist' who was 'the master of more with less'. It was fitting to name the molecule after him since 'he was a green campaigner before anyone talked of the term', passionate about design, always learning from nature, and 'a warm man', unlike the sterotypical 'cold' scientist.

In a discussion forum after the event Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Trinity College, Oxford, traced the 'structural intuitions', or the historical evidence of how scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci used nature's forms such as spirals, shells and seeds, to analyse geometric strengths and applied them to theories and designs. The Buckyball's shape was there, too, in an insects' eye and on a tortoise's shell, where the pentagons amongst the hexagons allow the shell its curvature and strength.

Ove Arup director and Imperial College professor Chris Wise followed with a look at how Buckminster Fuller's early findings were now being taken for granted - some embodied in his hopes for his Dymaxion House in the 1950s. The Buckyballs, said Wise, were an example of a simple assembly of repetitive components, something which goes back to Ancient Greece. Ove Arup is trying, with Richard Rogers Partnership, to build Terminal 5 at Heathrow (public inquiry permitting) using such 'kit' principles.

Buckminster Fuller had been interested in pushing materials to their limits, even to the extent of creating geodesic structures made of paper, 12 or 15m across, for a restaurant. He worked with plastic as we now work in composites, and in aluminium, just as Future Systems is in creating the Lord's Media Centre. Even Ove Arup's attempts, with Rogers again, to develop the doomed South Bank glass wave drew inspiration.

Rounding off the debate into the legacy left by Fuller, Kroto explained that chemists think in the same way as architects - they too build and think about structures, or 'building blocks' but in miniature, at the molecular level.

Construction applications for the Buckyball - branded 'the molecule of the new millennium' at the launch - could be anything from super-lightweight vehicles which therefore require less fuel (another green Bucky tradition after his early experiments in aerodynamics with the Dymaxion car in 1933), to elements of bridges, to tall, earthquake-resistant buildings or towers.

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