Buckminsterfullerene Definition

If you think the buckminsterfullerene definition is going to be boring, you are absolutely wrong. This exciting molecule is one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. It opens the door to so many possible applications that it certainly deserves your attention.

There are numerous ongoing scientific researches to unfold the full potential of the C₆₀ molecule that could significantly improve our lives.

There is no doubt fullerenes have a bright future ahead. You can learn more about this peculiar molecule and get involved in the astonishing world of nanotechnology.


Buckminsterfullerene Definition – A Breakthrough Discovery that Happened in a University Lab

As most of the great discoveries also this one was the unexpected one. In fact it was a result of research into particles in the space. It was initiated by the British chemist Harold Kroto, who teamed up with his American colleagues Richard Smalley and Robert Curl with an assistance of James R. Heath and Sean O’Brien.


How it all started

Kroto met his friend Curl at the exhibition in Texas. Curl happened to be Smalley’s colleague at the Rice University. It was not just a nice coincidence though.

In fact Kroto wanted to use Smalley’s AP2 machine to continue with his research of the origins of the long linear carbon chain molecule.

In the beginning Smalley was not very excited about this idea as he had his own work in progress, but one year later he agreed and Kroto could start with his experiments.



The Rest Is the History

The experiments took place in the labs at the Rice University in Texas. In 1985 Kroto arrived to Houston and got to work immediately. It started as the long linear carbon chains research and ended as the discovery of Buckminsterfullerene.

Thankfully the group of scientists was alert enough to realize that they had been observing something new.


From an Accidental Discovery to the Nobel Prize

Soon it was clear that their discovery was a real breakthrough and a few years later it was also recognized by the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. In 1996, the trio scientists, Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Meet Harry, Richard and Robert

Sir Harold Walter Kroto (1939 – 2016)

He was an English chemist, who spent most of his career at the University of Sussex. Except the most prestigious Nobel Prize, he received many other honors and awards. Harry Kroto was the initiator of the experiments, which led to the discovery of fullerenes. He also promoted science education and was famous supporter of British Humanist Association and critic of religious faith.


Richard Errett Smalley (1943 – 2004)

He was American chemist. Smalley was Professor of Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy at the Rice University in Texas. He also manufactured the famous AP2 machine, which helped to study clusters of any element and it was this machine that brought Harry Kroto to the USA.

His career was very fruitful. After the breakthrough discovery, he dedicated his life to nanotechnology. Unlike his friend Harry, he reconnected with his Christian beliefs.


Robert Curl Jr. (born 1933)

He is Professor Emeritus, Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Natural Science Emeritus and Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at the Rice University. He is the third of the trio scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. After obtaining the most prestigious award of all, he took different path than his colleagues. He continued in his research out of the spotlight until he retired at the age of 74.


So What Is The Definition of Buckminsterfullerene?

If we limit ourselves to plain definition, it is a molecule that is formed by 60 carbon atoms. Its structure is cage-like fused-ring. It consists of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons. If you look at it, it resembles football (soccer) ball. There is a carbon atom at each vertex of each polygon and a bond along each polygon edge.

Smalley described it this way: “The buckyball, with sixty carbon atoms, is the most symmetrical form the carbon atom can take. Carbon in its nature has a genius for assembling into buckyballs. The perfect nanotube, that is, the nanotube that the carbon atom naturally wants to make and makes most often, is exactly large enough that one buckyball can roll right down the center.”


How Did Buckminsterfullerene Get Its Name?

The name of this molecule refers to its shape and structure as the scientists named it after famous American architect and futurist Mr. Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, who designed many geodesic dome structures. These domes are very similar to the structure of the Buckminsterfullerene.

However there is a slightly misleading difference as the geodesic domes are built from triangles and not hexagons and pentagons. Another common shorter version of the name is buckyball.


Let’s Have a Closer Look at Its Unique Structure

It is obvious that the structure of this molecule is the key. What is the secret of this extraordinary molecule? The scientists are on the quest to unfold the mystery.

As a start you should know that C₆₀ is the most common fullerene from the fullerene family. They are pure carbon molecules that form the cage of carbon atoms.

They can be either closed or opened. Closed are the buckyballs and opened are buckytubes.

Buckminsterfullerene is not only the most common; it is also the smallest and the most symmetrical fullerene.

It was already mentioned before; it is formed by twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons, where the centers of the pentagons are the corners of an icosahedron.

To be precise our C₆₀ is truncated icosahedron.

It is really interesting that to determine the structure of the buckyball did not require any high-tech computer. In fact Richard Smalley used just tape, scissors and paper.

You might also like to know that the scientists had a minor argument about who came up with the name and structure idea first. They simply forgot.

This quite amusing situation was described the best by Robert Curl, who said: “Harry was convinced that it was his idea and Rick was convinced it was his idea and I'm convinced it wasn't my idea.”


Why Is C₆₀ Molecule So Special?

This molecule has absolutely amazing chemical and physical properties, which suggests so many possible applications.

  • It is the largest object observed to exhibit wave-particle duality.
  • Very stable molecule that can resist high pressure and temperature.
  • It is the most symmetrical molecule in the world.
  • It is soluble in aromatic solvents, but not in the water.
  • C₆₀ behaves like an electron deficient and therefore willingly reacts with electron rich species.

Thanks to these properties C₆₀ has really long list of applications, some of them are already successfully implemented into our lives and the others are the subjects of the ongoing researches.


Current and Possible Applications Areas

  • Research and development – the most promising is its biomedical use (cancer and HIV treatment etc.)
  • Paintwork materials
  • Powder metallurgy
  • Electronics
  • Automotive Industry
  • Lubricants
  • Composite and polymeric materials
  • Coatings
  • Cosmetology


The Summary

There is absolutely no doubt that this molecule will change the world as we know it and it will happen in a near future.

Nanotechnology is a fascinating, fast-evolving science that can give us answers for many emerging questions.

Now you know all important and interesting facts about C₆₀ molecule, its history, structure, properties and possible applications.

Do you think fullerenes are the new and more effective cancer treatment or even a cure for HIV? Or is its potential bigger in other fields? You can share your opinion on this topic with us in the comments below.

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