Buckyballs Carbon: Learn all Important and interesting about a Molecule that Has Changed the World

There is no doubt that buckyballs carbon is a truly peculiar molecule. If you are interested in nanotechnology and want to know more about C₆₀ molecule, this article will provide you with all basic information considering its discovery, definition, structure and possible applications.

However, we will not stick to the bare facts only. You are also going to learn about the fascinating story behind the discovery of the fullerenes and get an insight into the thrilling work of the scientists who made it happen.



Buckyballs Carbon – From an Unexpected Discovery to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

In the beginning there were only theories. In 1970 Japanese scientist Eiji Osawa of Toyohashi University of Technology predicted the existence of C₆₀ molecule. His idea was published in Japan, but unfortunately did not reach Europe or the USA.

In the same year R. W. Henson suggested the structure and made the model of C₆₀, but it was not accepted as his evidence was very weak.

In 1973 the group of scientists from the USSR shared Henson’s faith. They proposed the structure, but without an evidence as well.

In fact it took twelve more years.

In 1985 Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley from the Rice University teamed up and with the assistance of James R. Heath and Sean O’Brian made experiments that led to an unexpected discovery of buckyballs.


Originally It Was a Research into the Particles Found in Space

Harry Kroto was the initiator of the famous experiments at the Rice University in Houston Texas. He was fascinated by the astrochemistry. Kroto was particularly interested and wanted to investigate the origins of the long linear carbon chains molecule.

In 1984 Kroto attended the conference in Houston where he met his friend Robert Curl. Curl was working with Richard Smalley, who constructed a special device AP2. This machine allowed the scientists to study clusters of any element. Kroto knew this instrument could help him finish his experiments.

First Smalley did not share Kroto’s excitement as he wanted to finish his own work, but one year later he agreed.

What happened next is the history. Kroto flew to Texas right away and start the experiments in the labs at the Rice University in Houston.

The experiments had two results:

  • The team found the long carbon chains.
  • The second result was unexpected observation of previously unknown molecule of pure carbon

Luckily these scientists were alert enough to know they had seen something completely new.

This accidental discovery was truly revolutionary. Few years later it was also recognized by the Swedish Royal Academy of Science by the most prestigious award of all. In 1996, the British chemist Harold Kroto and his American colleagues Robert Curl and Richard Smalley were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Who Is Harry Kroto, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley?

It is true that the beginning of their cooperation was not as smooth as it could be, because it took time to persuade Richard Smalley to provide his AP2 instrument. Although Kroto had to wait for a year to start, it was definitely worth it.

Three geniuses teamed up and it was just the right combination of passion and talent. Together they achieved greatness and international fame and recognition.

You need to know a bit more about them.


The one, who started it all, was Sir Harold Walter Kroto (1939 – 2016). He was the British chemist from the University of Sussex. For his exceptional scientific work he had received many honors and awards including the above-mentioned Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

He used his fame to promote the science education. He was well known critic of religious faith and humanist and famous supporter of the British Humanist Association.

The man who constructed and provided the machine AP2 was Richard Erret Smalley (1943 – 2004). He was the American chemist at the Rice University in Texas.

After the discovery of fullerenes he devoted his career to nanotechnology. He was also a famous advocate of the need for cheap, clean energy.


The third one from the trio was Robert Curl Jr. (born 1933) he is Richard Smalley’s colleague from the Rice University. This American scientist is Professor Emeritus, Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Natural Science Emeritus and Professor of Chemistry Emeritus.

Unlike his famous colleagues he chose to continue in his research out of the spotlights.

He said: "After winning a Nobel, you can either become a scientific pontificator, or you can have some idea for a new science project and you can use your newfound notoriety to get the resources to do it. Or you can say, 'Well, I enjoy what I was doing, and I want to keep doing that."



So What Is the Definition of Buckyball Molecule?

It is a type of fullerene with the formula C₆₀. Buckyball is formed by sixty carbon atoms. It consists of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons.

You can recognize its shape easily as it resembles a soccer (football) ball, where the hexagons represent the white parts and pentagons the black ones.

In other words buckyball has a cage-like ring fused structure. It is a truncated icosahedron. The carbon atoms are at each vertex of each polygon and there is a bond along each polygon edge.



Chemical FormulaC₆₀
Molar Mass720.66 g∙mol¯¹
AppearanceDark needle-like crystals
Density1.65 g/cm³
Melting pointSublimates at ~ 600 °C (1,112 °F; 873 K)
Solubility in WaterInsoluble in water


The Extraordinary Properties of Buckyball Fullerene Propose Many Possible Applications

Yes, there are plenty of possible applications thanks to its exceptional physical and chemical properties.


What Makes This Molecule So Different?

  1. Buckyball is a very stable and enormously strong molecule that can resist not only high pressure, but also high temperature.
  2. Wave-particle duality. In fact C₆₀ is the biggest object observed that can exhibit it.
  3. Its solubility. It is soluble in aromatic solvents, but not in the water.
  4. It is also the most symmetrical molecule in the world.
  5. It reacts willingly with the electron rich species. That happens, because it behaves like electron deficient.
  6. It can also be found in the outer space

It is not a surprise that this carbon-based molecule has got the attention of the scientific world. The scientists are aware of its huge potential and therefore there are numerous researches in progress.


Possible Applications Are:

  • Biomedicine – the most promising and exciting is the cancer research. It gives a hope for the millions of the cancer patients for a more effective treatment. How does it work? The C₆₀ molecule could be absorbed by cancer cells with a help of various functional groups. Then it could evoke the apoptosis. Fullerene could turn the oxygen into reactive oxygen; basically the cancer cell would destroy itself. There would be used only light radiation offering a less harmful alternative to the chemotherapy. Other biochemical applications could be in X-Ray imagining, drug and gene delivery or Magnetic Resonance Imagining.
  •  Electrocatalysts – for instance in the fuel cells. The pollution produced by burning fossil fuels is one of the emerging problems that could be solved by using fullerenes in fuel cells. The fuel would be oxidized at an anode and oxygen reduced at a cathode. Through this process the chemical energy would be converted into electrical energy.
  • Gas storage – this could be possible thanks to their extraordinary structure. Fullerenes can be hydrogenated and dehydrogenated reversibly.
  • Composite coating – they enhance the properties of the common used coating agents.
  • Strong antioxidants – one molecule of fullerene can neutralized up to 30 radicals. They work as very effective protective shields.
  • Cosmetology – It is used for its antioxidants capabilities. Another possible use is as a derivate of vitamin C and E.
  • Powder metallurgy – fullerenes have the ability to strengthen the metals.
  • They can also be used in electronics, lubricants or paintwork materials.

How Is C₆₀ Synthesized?

You should know that buckyball is the most common naturally occurring fullerene. It is present in small quantities in soot and it was even detected in outer space.

The production process consists of five stages:

  1. First they synthesized fullerene-containing soot. The method they use is the arc method.
  2. What follows next is the extraction.
  3. Then each fullerene molecule is separated (purified) aiming to get pure fullerene such as C₆₀.
  4. Another step is the synthesis of derivates. Usually by using the techniques of organic synthesis.
  5. The last step is other post-processing, for example dispersion into a matrix

It is clear that its structure is undoubtedly unique, it is also the key and reason why it is one of the most researched and tested nanomaterials.


So What Are Buckyballs Made of?

The research and development of fullerenes could be compared to a thrilling adventure. The full potential of this outstanding molecule is yet to be uncovered.

Crystal StructureFace-centered cubic, cF1924
Space GroupFm3m, No. 225
Lattice Constanta = 1.4154 nm


As it was mentioned before buckminsterfullerene is the most symmetrical molecule. In fact the symmetry is pure perfection. There is astonishing 120 operations, rotations around axis and reflections in the plane.

Richard Smalley said about its symmetry this: “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.”

It is also the smallest and most common fullerene from the fullerene family. You already know that its shape resembles a soccer ball, what you might not know is that when you compare the size of the C₆₀ molecule with the actual soccer ball, it has the same ratio as if you compare the soccer ball to the Earth. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?


Truncated Icosahedron

C₆₀ is a truncated icosahedron. Icosahedron is a polyhedron that has twenty faces. In this particular case the molecule consists of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons. The centers of the pentagons are the corners of the icosahedron, where each of its pentagons shares the edges with the neighboring hexagons.


Interesting Facts about Buckyball Structure

If you think the structure of Buckminsterfullerene was determined by an advanced technology, you are mistaken.

After all previous attempts failed Richard Smalley grabbed scissors paper and tape and built a model by his own.

In the beginning it did not work, because he used only hexagons. Then Harry Kroto suggested using also pentagons and it closed. They had the first model of C₆₀ in their hands.

Determining the structure and also making up the name caused kind of a funny argument between Kroto and Smalley, because none of the great masterminds could remember who came up with the idea first.

Robert Curl described it this way: “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.”

Nevertheless, it was just a minor dispute that did not change that they had made one of the greatest discoveries in the 20th century.


Last but Not Least. Why Is C₆₀ Called Buckminsterfullerene?

C₆₀ molecule, buckyballs or Buckminsterfullerene these are all names of the first discovered fullerene.

Buckminsterfullerene refers to the structure and shape of the molecule. Mr. Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was a famous American architect and futurist. He designed the geodesic dome. Its shape is very similar to the structure of the buckyball. That is why the scientists decided to name it after him.


The Summary

You have learned all important facts about the structure, properties, possible applications and production processes of this amazing molecule.

This article has also given you an insight of the life and work of the scientists, who discovered fullerenes.

Now you understand the importance of the research of fullerenes and what impact it might have on our lives.

Hopefully, it will inspire you to investigate and study more about this fascinating molecule.

Do you also think fullerenes have a bright future ahead?

Are they the source of clean energy or a cancer cure? Or you have other opinions? Please do not hesitate to share them with us.

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