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What Are Buckminsterfullerenes

Buckminsterfullerenes are a class of carbon the existence of which was unknown until 1985. In that year, astrophysicists from Sussex University in England and Rice University in Texas who were attempting to duplicate the effects of the death of a giant red star star inside a bell jar in the lab turned a laser on a mixture of nitrogen, helium, hydrogen, oxygen and carbon bar stock – the basic molecules found in stars. When the laser was turned off, what was left was water and a reddish brown substance. That substance turned out to be a form of carbon only found at asteroid sites.

Normally, carbon exists in nature in three forms:

  • A crystalline form, where atoms are tightly packed in a rigid cubical structure that we call diamonds
  • A looser lattice structure where the carbon forms in sheets, that we call graphite
  • A non-structured form commonly called soot

This new form of elemental carbon was made of groups of sixty or seventy atoms all linked together to form what looks like tiny soccer balls. In fact, if you look at a soccer ball, you will see that its round shape is actually a combination of hexagons – six-sided shapes – and pentagons – five-sided shapes – that is identical to the C60 elemental form of carbon. The scientists who discovered it thought that it resembled the geodesic dome structures designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller, the visionary architect and industrial designer, so they called their new form of carbon buckminsterfullerene.

This compound and related ones are now also known as fullerenes, to describe a class of compounds that can be as few as 20 carbon atoms in ball shape, or which can form in tubes or lattices that are also called nanotubes.

The ball-shaped fullerenes are also known as buckyballs. The group of scientists who discovered the compounds were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996.

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