Discovery Center adds nano-climbing structures

Staff Report

A new portion of playground opened Oct. 25 at Rockford’s Discovery Center Museum and is the first in the world built around unique structures formed by the element carbon.

Carbon has been called the element of life because it combines with other elements to make up living organisms, but all by itself it also forms structures that have phenomenal strength, based on the power of the chemical bonds between carbon atoms.

Conceived at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, the playground is designed for elementary-schoolers, and features climbing structures based on the soccer-ball-like buckyball molecule, the pipe-shaped carbon nanotube, and graphene, a molecule that looks like chicken wire and is just one atom thick.

We chose carbon because it exhibits a lot of different structures, and you could consider making them into playgroundequipment,” said John Moore, professor of chemistry. “Other elements do not produce such a variety of structures, and many of them would not be suitable for playground equipment.”

But the playground is not just about climbing and clambering, Moore said. “These structures have been critical areas for chemical research for over 20 years, so they make for a good scientific story, not just a great playground,” he explained.

The structures were the brainchild of Jim Maynard, lecture demonstrator in the chemistry department. Andrew Greenberg, co-director of outreach for the UW — Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), suggested using the models for climbing. The Institute for Chemical Education, which Moore heads, received a grant for the project from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Support was also provided by the National Science Foundation through the NSEC.

Moore said the Discovery Center was the ideal location.

We were already paired with them through the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, and it’s rated as one of the top 12 children’s museums in the country,” Moore said. “Plus, it has a playground, and Discovery Center Associate Director Michael Rathbun really liked the idea and was willing to modify the playground to feature three sizable structures.”

Moore explained that nanoscale science and engineering are the study of chemical structure and reactions at the most basic level; the fields have applications ranging from energy conversion and storage to biology. The name derives from the nanometer (billionth of a meter), which is used to measure atomic structures like those in the buckyball, nanotube and graphene. One inch measures slightly more than 25 million nanometers.

At Discovery Center, the buckyball, nanotube and graphene had to be blown up 2.7 billion times for conversion into steelplayground equipment coated with plastic.

Since the 60-carbon buckyball molecule was discovered in 1985, nanoscale carbon structures have fascinated scientists and engineers. Although their industrial uses in the main remain to be perfected, scientists envision a broad range of applications in research, energy, pharmaceuticals and electronics.

One goal of the nanoscale center at UW — Madison, and the playground at Discovery Center, is to ensure that more young peopletake part in a fascinating new field, Moore said.

They are not going to learn that much from climbing, but we hope the playground equipment is a hook that gets them interested in nanoscience,” Moore said. “If they become fascinated and learn more from the website, they may want to continue in math and science courses, come to the university and study matter at this most basic level. There is no question that this is a fruitful frontier for science and engineering. It’s the shape of tomorrow.”

Discovery Center Museum is inside Riverfront Museum Park, 711 N. Main St., Rockford. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., daily. Admission is $7 adults, $7 children 2-17, and free to museum members and children age 1 and younger.

For more details, call (815) 963-6769 or visit

From the Nov. 7-13, 2012, issue

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