Nottingham physicists led by Professor Tony Horsewill have been awarded a major new grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to study a new class of materials called Molecular Endofullerenes. Fullerenes are football-shaped cages of carbon atoms, for the discovery of which the British scientist Harry Kroto won the Nobel Prize in 1996. Inside the cage is an empty space. Chemists and physicists have found many ingenious ways of trapping atoms or molecules inside the tiny fullerene cages. These encapsulated compounds are called endofullerenes.
Japanese scientists Komatsu and Murata, one of whom is a project partner on the current proposal, pioneered an ingenious method for making these remarkable structures. They performed "molecular surgery". First, a series of chemical reactions was used to open a hole in the fullerene cages. A small molecule such as water (H2O) was then inserted into each fullerene cage by using high temperature and pressure. Finally, a further series of chemical reactions was used to "sew" the holes back up again. The result was the chemical compound called water-endofullerene, denoted H2O@C60.
The research consortium includes a team from the University of Southampton headed by Professors M.H. Levitt and R.J. Whitby who have succeeded in developing a new synthetic route which requires milder conditions and has improved yield for the production of H2O@C60. In addition the new study will involve encapsulating other small molecules in the fullerene cage, including ammonia (NH3) and methane (CH4).
Although most of the new project concerns basic science probing the fundamental quantum mechanical properties of the entrapped small molecules, this study could lead to technological and even medical advances in the future. One example might be the development of new forms of very dense data storage. A single gram of H2O@C60 could, in principle, store 1 million terabytes of information, sufficient to store the DNA sequences of everyone on the planet. In addition, the quantum behaviour of the encapsulated molecules is expected to give rise to greatly enhanced magnetic resonance signals, leading to the possibility of greatly enhanced MRI images, with considerable medical benefits..
The Nottingham award is part of a £1.4m grant including collaborators from the University of Southampton and partners based in Japan and Estonia.
Posted on Friday 15th August 2014