16 June 2010

Sheffield graduate's 'buckyball' listed in top 10 discoveries

Professor Sir Harry Kroto

Nobel Prize-winning research, carried out by University of Sheffield alumnus Professor Sir Harry Kroto, has been named by fellow academics as one of the ten most important discoveries made by their peers at UK universities in the past 60 years.

A poll of UK academics placed Professor Kroto's 1985 discovery of the microscopic "footballs", known as buckyballs, tenth in a list topped by the discovery of DNA.

The poll, which was carried out to mark Universities Week (14-20 June 2010), placed the discovery of the structure of DNA (unveiled on 28 February 1953) ahead of other key UK university discoveries such as the first computer, Dolly the Sheep, the contraceptive pill and the Internet.

Professor Kroto completed his BSc in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield in 1961, his PhD in 1964, and received an Honorary DSc in 1995. In 1996 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene - a new form of carbon). The C60 molecule was created from 60 carbon atoms arranged in the same structure as a football.

Along with his US collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, Professor Kroto revealed that carbon can exist as tiny spherical molecules, now known as fullerenes or buckyballs. The discovery of a whole family of carbon-cage molecules soon followed, collectively dubbed fullerenes after their similarity to the geodesic domes designed by the late Richard Buckminster Fuller. Fullerenes include football and rugby ball shapes and tubes of carbon, called nanotubes, which sparked the nanotech revolution.

The molecules are incredibly strong, and vary in shape from the prototype ball to rugby balls and tubes, known as nanotubes, which are about 100 times as strong as steel, but as light as the graphite in ordinary pencils - properties that make for endless practical applications.

Professor Kroto, who was invited to announce the poll results, said: "It surely comes as no surprise that DNA has come out top. It is not only pre-eminently important to understanding almost every fundamental aspect of life itself but it is also so beautiful and at the same time so simple in revealing how genetic characteristics are transmitted.

"Despite the fact that the discovery is over 50 years old, this finding is instrumental in every element of our lives and the basis of our understanding about life on Earth.

"This list demonstrates the outstanding level of achievement of research scientists in UK universities and their impact on our everyday lives. Even in another 60 years I hope that this list will inspire people to appreciate the contribution to human knowledge and well-being of researchers in our universities. We have some of the world's best researchers and must continue to value their work if we are to advance our understanding of the world and of what humans are capable."