Monday, October 25, 2010


The Carbon-60 molecule was first found at Rice University in 1985 by Harold Kroto, Robert Curl, Richard Smalley, and then-graduate students James Heath and Sean O'Brien. Carbon-60 was found to occur naturally in common soot. Because of its resemblance to a geodesic dome, the molecule was named the Buckminster Fullerene or Buckyball for short. In 1996 Kroto, Curl and Smalley were recognised with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. October 11-14 the discoverers were celebrated at this conference in Rice University.

Sean in particular was inspired by the Apollo program to follow a career in science. The spherical form of Carbon-60 was first proposed by R.W. Henson in 1970. Henson's idea was rejected by colleagues and was never published. The Buckyball's discovery began with cosmic dust. Diffuse Interstellar Bonds (DIB) were an unexplained astrophysical feature. Possibly unknown carbon molecules played a part. Speculation about the interstellar medium would eventually lead to Buckyballs.

When the team announced their discovery, many scientists tried to refute them. At least 6 papers were devoted to puncturing the discovery. One paper was nastily titled "C-60: a Deflated Soccer Ball." Some scientists are devoted to studying soot, and were miffed that the Buckyball team had discovered in soot what others had not. Finally in 1990 another researcher isolated a bottle of Buckyballs, vindicating the discovery..

The Nobel winners commented that "the structure of universities is counter-productive" and "Germanic."

The pressure to publish is "negative for the creative process."

At a big school like Harvard or UC they would have enjoyed little stature.

Buckyballs helped open up the new science of nanotechnology. They led to carbon nanotubes and other potentially useful products. This year, 25 years after they were found on Earth, C-60 molecules were observed in a planetary nebula by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Since the search for Buckyballs began with speculation about the interstellar medium, a discovery in Space was a fitting birthday present



Blogger nige said...

Thanks for the interesting article. But I think it's a hype/spin con for them to call the buckyball molecule a "carbon molecule", because each carbon atom has to be connected by single bonds to a hydrogen atom and three other carbon atoms. Hence its C_60 H_60.

If that's a "carbon molecule", then by similar illogic, methane CH_4 is also a "carbon molecule", and water H_2 O is a "hydrogen molecule" or an "oxygen molecule" (whatever the hype prefers). This is just absurd abuse of chemistry.

You can't have a C_60 molecule because carbon has a valency of 4 and buckyballs only connect each carbon atom to 3 others. The last bond has to be with a hydrogen atom, most likely on the outside of the buckyball (the hydrogen atoms layer repel each other and geometrically will have more space to themselves on the outside than on the inside of the buckyball).

Because it's just held together by single bonds between carbon atoms, it's not going to be that strong individually, although the geometric shape approaching a sphere will provide very good overall strength against compression, so maybe it would be a good, long-life alternative to lubricant oil or grease for engines. But it's hard to make or extract from natural sources, so it will be an extremely expensive alternative to oil. Maybe they will be able to manufacture them effectively one day using immense numbers of nanotechnology robot factories built like microchips, but I still think this is the most boring and overhyped piece of chemistry ever.

A decade ago there a popular science hype magazine went on about using buckyballs as "magic bullets" to kill cancer by placing poison molecules inside the buckyballs and then having them (magically) deliver the drug straight to the cancer cells. It just glossed over the problem of how the buckyball is supposed to (1) target cancer cells, and (2) release the poison from inside the relatively strong structure of the buckyball at the right time. These problems were dismissed as mere technical trivialities. It's like starting to build the Starship Enterprize hull today based on existing technology, leaving problems like the blueprints for the warp drives and transporters to be worked out at the last minute with the latest ideas, when everything else has been finished first. Sounds sensible :-(

8:48 AM  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

You can have a C60 molecule. One third of the bonds are double. See the wiki article on Buckminsterfullerene , which is a bucky ball.

11:36 AM  
Blogger nige said...

"You can have a C60 molecule. One third of the bonds are double. See the wiki article on Buckminsterfullerene , which is a bucky ball."

There are no double bonds in(fullerene), see

The carbon atoms each join to 3 other carbon atoms by single bonds, the fourth bond being a single bond to a hydrogen atom.

True, you could have a third double bonds in place of the hydrogen atoms, but that isn't what happens in fullerene.

Ok. Just checked Buckminsterfullerene and there it is.

So now we have C-60 fullerene buckyballs with no double bonds and one hydrogen atom per carbon atom, C_60 H-60, and C-60 buckminsterfullerene which is pure C_60.

The name "buckyball" is being given to a different things!

11:35 PM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Thanks for visiting, all. Nige, carl and kea show that this blog draws the smartest commenters!

5:24 AM  

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