HL Deb 10 December 1991 vol 533 cc589-90

2.51 p.m.

Lord Erroll of Hale asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to encourage the use of Buckminsterfullerene in science and industry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Reay)

My Lords, the Government have been following with interest the emergence of Buckminsterfullerene and support research currently being undertaken at Sussex University through the Science and Engineering Research Centre. However, it must be left to the judgment of firms whether they wish to pursue research into commercial applications of Buckminsterfullerene and other fullerenes.

Lord Erroll of Hale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer, which is good so far as it goes. Can he not offer more substantial support in this country for the development of this exciting new form of carbon? It is already being manufactured in no fewer than three factories in the United States.

Lord Reay

My Lords, as I said, the Government continue to fund academic research into Buckminsterfullerenes at Sussex University. Many grants have been made available since 1986 which have gone towards that research. SERC also supports a number of researchers investigating the theoretical aspects of chemical bonding relating to fullerenes. The Government funding for collaborative research between industry and the academic world into the commercial application of Buckminsterfullerenes may be available also under the Link scheme or other schemes.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, forgive my ignorance, but can the noble Lord say whether this thing is animal, vegetable or mineral?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am glad the noble Baroness asked that question. I can say that a Buckminsterfullerene is a molecule composed of 60 carbon atoms known to chemists as C60. Those atoms form a closed cage made up of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons that fit together like the surface of a football.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware, in supplementing his Answer, that the football-shaped carbon molecule is also known, for some extraordinary reason, as "Bucky ball"? It created a considerable stir within the scientific community. As the British Technology Group either has been, or is shortly to be, privatised, is this not a case that should be taken up by the privatised BTG and promoted as a British invention?

Lord Reay

My Lords, privatised BTG will be free to take that decision. We do not feel that it is for the Government to say whether or not Buckminsterfullerenes have commercial usages, nor whether companies should become involved. It must be up to them.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is it the shape of a rugger football or a soccer football?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I believe it is the shape of a soccer football. Professor Kroto, whose group played a significant part in the development of Buckminsterfullerenes, described it as bearing the same relationship to a football as a football does to the earth. In other words, it is an extremely small molecule.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, what does it do?

Lord Reay

My Lords, it is thought that it may have several possible uses; for batteries, as a lubricant or as a semi-conductor. All that is speculation. It may turn out to have no uses at all.

Earl Russell

My Lords, can one say that it does nothing in particular and does it very well?

Lord Reay

My Lords, that may well be the case.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, where does the name come from?

Lord Reay

My Lords, it is named after the American engineer and architect, Buckminster Fuller, who developed the geodesic dome, which bears a close resemblance to the structure of the molecule.