Of jellybeans and buckyballs…

Here’s a small diversion for a slow Sunday afternoon:  Take sixty jellybeans and ninety cocktail sticks, and try to construct a model of a buckyball—a carbon-60 molecule.  It’s tricky, but not impossible.

Constructing a candy buckminster fullerene is one of ten nano “experiments” in a new nanotechnology education kit from nanobits. Designed to enthuse and inform kids in school and at home about nanotechnology, the nanobits kit grew out of Nanovic (Nanotechnology Victoria Ltd.)—an Australian initiative to translate nanotechnology research into commercial applications.

Having seen the kit a couple of times while visiting Australia, I was keen to get my hands on one and take it for a test run (or at least, co-opt my kids into yet another “socio-nano experiment”).  And thanks to the generosity of Nanovic, and Mathew Dipnall at nanobits, a few weeks ago my wish came true.

On the outside, the nanobits kit looks like an upmarket children’s science kit.  The container is modelled on a carbon nanotube—a short cylinder truncated by fullerene-like ends. Open it up, and all the elements of an introduction to nanotechnology spill out—an instruction book complete with interesting facts, explanations and web links; memory-metal wire; a wad of nano-treated fabrics; a piece of glass with a hydrophobic coating; and a few other bits and pieces.  The true nanotech content of the kit’s components might be limited, but the listed experiments also use common household items to demonstrate different aspects of nanotechnology.

True to form, I lost no time setting my two children to work on the kit.  You can see the results of their first foray on YouTube, in the debut of “Nanobusters:”

In homage to the “nano-tie” video they put together back in 2006, the two of them carried out a short version of the “try to stain nano-treated fabrics” experiment; dipping various supplied fabrics in soy sauce, then washing them in clean water.  While I think there is still room for improvement in the experiment as described in the kit, the exercise was fun for the two children, it got them thinking about what nanotech can do, and there’s a possibility they even learned something.

Overall, this is an engaging kit.  Perhaps more geared toward classes of school kids and older children, it nevertheless has enough appeal to interest home experimenters.  It could be improved with the inclusion of more hands-on nano stuff, but I was impressed by the use of everyday objects to demonstrate nanotechnology in the handbook.  For instance, gelatine is used to demonstrate sol-gels; crushed ice-cubes containing bicarbonate of soda are used to show how smaller particles can be more reactive; and egg-yolk and oil help to explore self-assembling membranes.

The handbook also delves into broader issues—biomedical nanotechnology, bio-mimicry and even nano-ethics.

With the most recent poll supported by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies indicating 70% percent of people in the U.S. know little or nothing of nanotechnology (the percentage is similar elsewhere), new approaches to getting the word out are clearly needed—especially if the public and policy makers alike are to make informed decisions on emerging nanotech applications.  While the nanobits kit is focused on children—and probably those with some interest in science to start with—it is a step in the right direction, and a great resource for introducing the next generation to nanotechnology in a fun and accessible way.

Perhaps my biggest concern is the price—at AU$94.30, it will be beyond the reach of many potential users.  But bring the price down to around $30, and you have a kit that would compete favourably with the best of the science kits for kids currently available.

And the jellybean buckyball?  I’m pleased to say that in the first round of the “Great Candy Buckyball Challenge” in our household, I won hands down.  But I suspect the victory will not be long lived.  Now if only I could find a superior jellybean, with a better stiffness-to-weight ratio…

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This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in April 2008

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