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What is a Buckyball?

Updated on March 25, 2016
(C60-Ih)[5,6]fullerene | Source

What is a Buckyball?

Buckminsterfullerene is a cage-like ringed structure made up of 60 carbon molecules. The structure looks quite a bit like a soccer ball. It belongs to the class of molecules called fullerines.

Who First Discovered Buckyballs?

The buckyball was first discovered by a group of scientists at Rice University in 1985. This group of scientists includes Robert Curl, Jim Heath, and Sean O'Brian. Harry Kroto who was working out of the University of Sussex in England was also a contributor.

Richard Smalley was trying to simulate the conditions of outer space, where these fullerenes naturally occur, when his high energy laser beam overheated a graphite slab blowing it up into individual atoms. As these atoms cooled they combined to form these 60 carbon structures known as buckminsterfullerines.

These scientists then went on to win the 1986 Nobel prize in chemistry for discovering the fullerene class of molecules Sir Harry Kroto shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs.The buckyball is named after Richard Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome structures because the shape of the molecule closely resembles his geodesic dome design.

Prior to the discovery of the buckyball there were only two known forms of pure carbon. Graphite which is the same gray metallic looking material used in most pencils, and diamond. Graphite is a soft slippery material and diamond is a very hard crystal. When the buckyball is compressed to seventy percent of its original size it is twice a hard as diamond.

Buckyballs discovered in space


Buckyballs were first discovered in space in 2010 by a group of astronamers using the Spitzer telescope. Cami and his team found the molecules by looking at Tc 1's infrared emissions with NASA's Spitzer Space TelescopeThe buckyballs were found in a planetary nebula called Tc 1, located about 6,000 light years away from earth. These kind of nebula are shells of gas and dust shed by dying stars.

Practical Applications in Medicine

The physical properties of the buckyball have practical applications in nanotechnology. The structure itself is very strong and can be used to transport smaller particles inside or on the outside of it's surface. When single atoms are placed on the outside of the buckyball it takes on a fuzzy appearance. This is referred to as a fuzzyball. It has practical applications in medicine as a tranport device to deliver medications throughout the body. There is exiting research underway studying how the buckyball may be useful in the delivery of cancer fighting drugs. This special delivery system would deliver the toxic medication to precise areas of the body where it could potentially wipe out the cancer cells without causing as much harm to the other healthy tissues as chemotherapy. There are also studies researching its value as an antiviral agent itself..

Practical Applications in Energy

Buckyballs are great superconductors. In the department of photovolataics they show great potential for bringing down the cost of manufactuing solar cells. These less expensive solar cells are made soley of carbon instead of the more expensive silicon traditionally used in the production of solar cells. This could lead to solar panels being far more accessible to the general public.

Smalley thought that maybe a buckyball battery could be created by wrapping lithium and fluorine atoms inside the buckyball structure. The lithium and fluorine give off energy while being protected from oxygen within the carbon shell of the buckyball.

Practical Applications in Manufacturing

The buckyball shows great potential as a commercial lubricant. A fully fluorinated buckyball would produce the slickest molecular lubricant ever created by man. It could be used to create a slicker surface than Teflon. It could be used to create new plastics due to it's malleability. It's great strength could be used to create an incredibly strong and inexpensive body armor. There are limitless possibilities to create new products due to the incredible strength, malleability and unique shape of the buckyball structure. The antimicrobial properties have been used to eliminate biofilms from growing and mucking up the filters at wastewater treatment plants. With the discovery of the buckyball chemists have a new toy in their toolbox and it will be exiting to see how they use it to improve our lives.


What are the Physical Properties of the Buckyball?

It is a large molecule.

They are the largest known molecule to exist in space.

It is very strong, it can be twice as rigid as diamond.

It is very malleable, and resiliant beyond any particle that we have ever known.

It is a very stable molecule.

It can be used to transport other molecules inside like a basket, or on the surface like a "fuzzyball."

It is made up of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons with an unbonded electron surrounding each one of the 60 carbon atoms

They reflect a fluorescent light.

Fullerenes are soluble in many aromatic solvents such as toluene and carbon disulphide, but not in water. Solutions of pure C60 have a deep purple color which transforms into brown upon drying off the solvent.

It is the largest particle to possess wave-particle duality

Where Can I Find a Buckyball?

Buckyballs have been found to occur prolifically in space.

They can be found in soot.

You can even make buckyballs at home. See following video.

About the Author

My name is Karen Shiley. I live in the beautiful evergreen Washington state. I have an adventurous spirit and love to share what I learn with everyone. I like science, gardening, cooking, reading, daytrips and above all else my amazing family who supply me with endless amusment and happiness. I originally published this article on 1/22/12 and last updated it on 11/13/14.

I would love to hear your comments!

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