Inventor R. Buckminster Fuller left a compelling legacy in a wide swath of fields including architecture, education, engineering, and transportation. A recent discovery reveals how Fuller’s legacy continues to live on at the bleeding edge of materials science.
Earlier this month, researchers at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology reported the synthesis of a new material that is harder than a diamond. The substance is called ultrahard fullerite and it is made from molecular spheres of carbon called fullerenes. Fullerenes were first discovered at Rice University in Houston in 1985 by Richard Smalley, Harold Kroto, and Robert Curl. The trio, which won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery, called their finding buckminsterfullerene because of its atomic resemblance to Fuller’s geodesic domes.
Like buckminsterfullerene, the ultrahard fullerite contains 60-atom spheres of carbon. Its molecules are united by omnidirectional covalent bonds, resulting in a hardness of 150 GPa to 300 GPa, compared to diamond's hardness factor of 150 GPa. In the past, the fabrication of such a hard material was near impossible due to the significant amount of pressure required. However, the research team discovered that adding carbon disulfide during the material's synthesis can catalyze the formation of ultrahard fullerite at slightly more than half the necessary pressure, making industrial production economically feasible.
The material will presumably fill in for diamond in industrial applications such as polishing, grinding, and cutting rigid materials. "The discovery … will create a new research area in materials science because it substantially reduces the pressure required for synthesis and allows for manufacturing the material and its derivatives on an industrial scale,” said Mikhail Popov, the paper's lead author and head of the functional nanomaterials lab at the Technological Institute for Superhard and Novel Carbon Materials in Moscow, in a press release.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.