Buckyball is the colloquial term given to a molecule composed of sixty atoms of carbon that adopt a soccer-ball shape. Its full name is buckminsterfullerene and its chemical symbol is C60. Its IUPAC name is (C60-Ih)[​5,6]fulle​rene. The buckyball was discovered in 1985 and won the Nobel Prize inBuckminsterfullerene, aka buckyball (26498)chemistry in 1996 for Richard E. Smalley, Robert Curl and Sir Harold W. Kroto. Graduate students James R. Heath and Sean C. O'Brien also contributed to the research. New molecules are discovered everyday but what made this discovery Nobel-Prize worthy was that it was a completely new form of a very familiar element, carbon. Other forms of carbon include graphite-a sheet-like form found in pencils-and diamond. Prior to the buckyball's discovery chemists believed they knew all the naturally occurring forms of carbon. This new form has a van der Waals radius of approximately 1 nanometer.

How the buckyball was discovered

The buckyball molecule was discovered accidentally in 1985 when the research team at Rice University in Houston, TX was trying to study unstable carbon-containing molecules that are created in interstellar clouds in outer space. Sir Harry Kroto was visiting Richard Smalley's lab at Rice to attempt to simulate the interstellar conditions that lead to the formation of these short-chain carbon clusters using Smalley's cluster beam apparatus. Smalley's apparatus used a high-energy laser beam to heat up a disc of graphite, thereby pulverizing it into individual atoms. As the atoms cool, they recombine to form a variety of small molecules that are detected using an analytical instrument call a mass spectrometer. When the apparatus was optimized to replicate the conditions of space, the researchers noticed that most of the molecules formed in the reaction chamber had a mass of 720 atomic mass units. A single carbon atom has an atomic mass unit of 12 so the researchers concluded that the molecule they had formed contained 60 carbon atoms.

How the buckyball got its name

Because C60 was the predominant molecule formed by the reaction (C70 was also foMontreal Biospherermed in smaller amounts as were other minor, larger molecules) the researchers concluded it must be a very stable molecule. They eventually figured out that the only way 60 carbon atoms could combine together in a stable molecule was if they took the form of a hollow soccer ball consisting of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons. The overall shape is known in geometry as a truncated icosahedron. The scientists named the molecule after American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, who made geodesic domes out of hexagons and pentagons.

Uses of the buckyball

Buckyballs have an amazing set of physical and chemical properties. They are being explored for use in medicine as drug carriers (other atoms or molecules can be attached to the surface or even loaded inside the hollow buckyball), as superconductors, lubricants and catalysts, just to name a few applications. Elongated buckyballs comprise a whole new class of nanomaterials known an nanotubes. Together, the family of carbon-based nanomaterials will be important to the future of materials science and engineering.

Buckyball Fast Facts

Names: Buckyball, buckminsterfullerene, fullerene-C60, [60]fullerene

International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) name: (C60-Ih)[​5,6]fulle​rene

Named for: Richard Buckminster Fuller

CAS number: 99685-96-8

Molecular formula: C60

Molar mass: 720.64 g/mol

Geometric shape: truncated (T=3) icosahedron (soccer ball)

Number of hexagons: 20

Number of pentagons: 12

Van der Waals diameter: ~ 1 nm

Discovered: 1985

Discovered by: Richard Smalley, Harry Kroto, Robert Curl, Sean O'Brien, James Heath

Discovered at: Rice University, 3rd floor Space Sciences Building

Discovery published in: Nature 318, 162 - 163 (14 November 1985); doi:10.1038/318162a0

Interesting properties: superconducting (low-T, with addition of K), free radical sponge