C₆₀ BuckminsterFullerene Is One of the Biggest Discoveries of 20th Century. Here Are the Most Important Facts You Have to Know!

C₆₀ BuckminsterFullerene is a molecule with almost limitless number of possible applications. That is not an exaggeration. This is a fact. Although it was discovered by a complete coincidence, soon it was clear that this molecule is truly special. Its perfect symmetry and exceptional chemical and physical properties attracted the attention of the whole scientific world.


There are numerous researches in progress in order to uncover its full potential. Do you want to know more about the miraculous C₆₀? Then go on and continue reading. You will not only learn the most known basic information such as its definition, structure, origin of the name or its types and derivatives. You will also learn what the story behind its discovery is and who were the scientists that made it happen and other interesting facts you probably have never heard before.


C₆₀ BuckminsterFullerene Was Discovered in the University Lab. Thanks to Great Determination and a Little Bit of Luck

As most of the biggest discoveries in our human history, also this one has a fascinating story. The scientists who discovered buckyballs were originally searching for long carbon chains. They did find what they were looking for, but they also observed something else. Something completely new and luckily they were aware of that.

The scientists were Sir Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex and Richard Smalley and Robert Curl Jr. from the Rice University in Texas.

James R. Heath and Sean O’Brian assisted them. This team united the forces in 1985 and made experiments in the labs at the Rice University in Houston, Texas.

In 1996, their hard work was recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. Kroto, Smalley and Curl obtained the most prestigious award of all, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


In the Beginning the Existence of C₆₀ Was Just a Theory

  • In 1966 David Jones aka Daedalus published an article in which he predicted the hollow molecule of carbon, but nobody took his theories seriously.
  • Very close was Japanese scientist Eiji Osawa of Toyohashi University of Technology. In 1970 he predicted its existence and his theories were published in Japan, but because it was published in Japanese it did not reach the European and US audience.
  • In the same year R. W. Henson created the model of C₆₀ and suggested its structure, but he did not provide evidence that would be strong enough to support his theory.
  • In 1973, the scientists from the Soviet Union proposed the structure the same as Henson, but also failed to provide evidence.


Then Harry Kroto Showed up and the Rest Is the History

If it was not for Harry Kroto, we would probably wait for the discovery of buckyballs a bit longer. He was the one who initiated the experiments.

Harry Kroto was passionately interested in the astrochemistry and wanted to research the origin of the long linear carbon chains molecules.

In 1984 he flew to Texas to attend a conference there. He met his friend Robert Curl.

And that is when it started to be really interesting.

Robert Curl was Richard Smalley’s friend and colleague. And Richard Smalley was the inventor of the AP2 machine, a special device that allowed the scientists to study the clusters of any element. A perfect tool Kroto needed to finish his experiments.

First Kroto had to persuade Smalley. This was not that easy, because Smalley wanted to finish his own work. In fact Kroto had to wait one year.

But eventually thanks to Kroto’s determination, Smalley’s AP2 and great team work they found:

  1. The long linear carbon chains as Kroto predicted.
  2. Absolutely new molecule of carbon atoms, which they named Buckminsterfullerene

After the Nobel Prize each of these three geniuses took a different path. Harry Kroto started to promote the science education. Once he said: “Scientific discoveries matters much more when they’re communicated simple and well – if you can’t explain your work to the man in the pub, what’s the point?”

Richard Smalley dedicated the rest of his career to nanotechnology. He was also an advocate of the need for cheap, the clean energy.

Robert Curl did what he was doing the best. He continued in his research at the Rice University. In his late work he took interest in physical chemistry.


So What is Fullerene 60?

Let’s start with the simple definition. Fullerene is an allotrope of carbon. Its shape can be a hollow sphere, tube, ellipsoid and many others.  The first discovered fullerene was the molecule C₆₀. It is a spherical fullerene that resembles by its shape a soccer (football) ball.


Types of Fullerenes

  • Buckyball clusters
  • Nanotubes
  • Megatubes
  • Polymers
  • Nano “onions”
  • Linked “ball-and-chains” dimers
  • Fullerene rings


The First Discovered Fullerene

Buckyball, C₆₀ formula or Buckminsterfullerene these are all titles of the same molecule.

It refers to its shape and structure and got it after famous American architect, futurist and author Mr. Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. He designed the famous geodesic dome. The shape of it is very similar to the one of C₆₀, so the scientists naturally decided to name it after him.


Now You Know the Bucky Fullerene Purpose. You Might Also Like to Know This:

  • There was kind of a funny dispute about the naming and also determining its structure. They could not remember who came up with this idea first. Both Kroto and Smalley claimed it was their idea; just Curl was cool about it as he was certain it was definitely not his idea.
  • The structure of the geodesic dome actually consists of triangles and not hexagons and pentagons as buckyball.


What Is the Definition of it?

Very simply, it is a molecule that consists of sixty carbon atoms. Therefore its formula is C₆₀. Its shape is easy to remember as it resembles the soccer (football) ball.

It is formed by twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons. If you look at the actual soccer ball, hexagons represent the white parts and pentagons the black ones.

It has a cage-like ring fused structure, where the carbon atoms are at each vertex of each polygon with a bond along each polygon edge.


Structure and Properties

The reason why Buckminsterfullerene is so special is its absolutely unique and perfectly symmetrical structure. In fact it is the most symmetrical molecule of all.

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


What is really amazing is that when you compare the size of buckyball with the size of the soccer ball it gives you exactly the same ratio as if you compare the soccer ball with the Earth.

It is so clear that the secret of its full potential lies within its structure and that is why it is the most researched fullerene.

Thanks to that C₆₀ shows extraordinary physical and chemical properties that propose almost infinite list of possible applications.


What are we talking about?

  1. Astonishing stability and high pressure and temperature resistance.
  2. Wave-particle duality.
  3. The fact it is soluble in aromatic solvent, but insoluble in water.
  4. It behaves like electron deficient so it reacts with electron rich species.
  5. We can found it in outer space.
  6. And the above mentioned perfect symmetry.


This is a very promising package of properties one molecule can offer.

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

First There Was the Accidental Observation, but What Did the Scientists Do to Make C₆₀?

As it was mentioned before first they observed this molecule while searching for the long linear carbon chains. At this point the structure of C₆₀ was just their theory so they needed much more of it in order to analyze it and provide a strong evidence of its existence.

They had been trying to do so for two years, but with no success. Smalley even once said: “We rather expected that some chemist in a Third World country would get a milligram of this out of cow dung or something like that."

Well, it did not happen in the Third World country. Huffman and Kratschmer, American and German scientists, made it happen. And again they were originally investigating something completely else.


The First Lab Synthesis

  • They used a simple device that consisted of two graphite rods. These rods were connected to the electric current circuit in a helium atmosphere. This machine formed lots of carbon clusters, the soot. That was just the beginning.
  • First they were able to extract just microscopic amounts, and then they changed the combinations of conditions, mostly the helium pressure. This way they were able to produce milligrams of it. Nobody had done this before.
  • Based on Smalley’s proposal, they became interested in how the buckyball would absorb the infrared light. They assumed that most of the light would go right through it. Except for the four wavelengths. That was it; they pretty much hit the jackpot.

In September 1990, they shared the result of their work with the rest of the world. They published a paper in the journal Nature where they described how they made the Buckminsterfullerene and even showed the photos of the crystals.

The existence of Buckminsterfullerene was proved and generally accepted by public. In the beginning the scientists were willing to pay fortune for one milligram of it.

Today you can buy fullerene for affordable prices. It is possible thanks to advanced technology and implementation of effective processes which significantly lowered the production costs.


How Is Buckminsterfullerene Synthesized Today?

The process has five stages:

  1. Synthesis of fullerene containing soot through the arc method.
  2. Its extraction.
  3. What follows next is the purification. The desired outcome of this process is a pure fullerene such as C₆₀.
  4. Synthesis of derivatives (usually organic synthesis).
  5. Other post-processing (for instance dispersion into a matrix).


Possible Applications of C₆₀ Buckyball

    • The most promising is its possible use in Biomedicine – more effective and less harmful cancer and HIV treatment, gene and drug delivery, X-Ray Imagining and Magnetic Resonance Imagining.
    • They are strong antioxidants. Therefore they are already successfully used in cosmetology. In fact they work as a protective shield. One molecule can neutralize up to 30 radicals, which is pretty amazing.
    • Electrocatalysts – they could be the key for the clean energy. They could transform the chemical energy into the electrical one.
    • Gas storage – fullerenes can be hydrogenated and dehydrogenated reversibly.
    • Composite coating


What are its Different Types?

Although nowadays there is a growing interest in nanotubes and graphene, buckyball still got the spotlight attention. The scientists want to find a way how to synthesize stable, well-characterized and highly soluble fullerene derivatives. These derivatives retain the same properties as the original molecule. Fullerene derivatives have also many possible applications. Very promising is their use in material design.


The Examples of Fullerene Derivatives

As a start a quick reminder, buckyball is an excellent electron acceptor. That is why it is quite easy to produce fullerene derivatives. It is made through addition reactions and chemical modification. The main advantage of these derivatives is the solubility. The non-derivative fullerenes are poorly soluble if compared to other nanomaterials.


The Soluble Functional Groups which Can Be Used to Develop Solution-processible Electronic Materials

  • PCBM - Phenyl-C61-butyric acid methyl ester
  • ICBA - indene-C60bisadduct

Both of these derivatives are organic semiconductors (n-type). They are used for organic photovoltaics (OPV), when mixed with the p-type conjugated polymer.

In other words they are implemented in plastic solar cells and flexible electronics when combined with electron donor materials or other polymers.


The ICBA Fullerene Could Be More Effective than PCBM in Certain Polymer Cells

The reason why it could be possible is that it shows a significant increase of volatile organic compounds. The result could be generally higher efficiency of the devices. This fullerene derivative is also known as IC60BA.


When It Comes to the Derivatives, What IS the Most Important Property of Fullerenes – GCSE Basics

Fullerenes show absolutely astonishing set of chemical and physical properties. As it was mentioned above they are great electron acceptors. If it would not be for this ability, the scientists would not be able to produce their derivatives so easily. These nanoproducts are desired as they have better solubility than the non-derivative fullerenes.


You Can Also Answer This a Bit Tricky Question: Is Fullerene an Allotrope of Carbon?

Sure it is. There are three solid allotropes of carbon.

  • Carbon allotrope of diamond.
  • Carbon allotrope of graphite
  • The third form of carbon is fullerenes.


What Are Other Possible Applications of Fullerene Derivatives?

These products could be used as organic transistors as well. It is possible to place molecule that consists of several atoms inside the fullerene. Therefore these types of fullerene derivatives could find their use in biomedicine enabling the effective drug delivery inside the cells. It could also be possible to insert radioactive atoms in them.


Fascinating Fullerene Science and Technology – The Summary

A lot of scientists compare the discovery of fullerene to the discovery of benzene. It expresses how huge its potential is.

This article gave you an overall insight into the thrilling world of nanotechnology. Now you know not only the basic facts about its discovery and scientists who made this happen. You are also more familiar with their research and life career.

You can recognize buckyball by its shape and have an idea about its structure, properties, possible applications and ways of production.

Last but not least this article introduced the most popular fullerene derivatives and mentioned their exceptional properties and promising use in photovoltaics and biomedicine.

Do you agree with the statement that fullerene discovery is the same revolutionary as the one of benzene? Are fullerenes a key to cancer and HIV free world? Are we going to see this progress in a near future?

Please share your opinions on this topic with us.

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