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Carbon60 - Buckminsterfullerene

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Carbon60 - also known as C60, Buckminsterfullerene or the Buckyball - is a particular molecular form of the element carbon1. Elemental carbon can also exist in the form of diamond or graphite. Buckminsterfullerene is closer to being graphite than diamond, but it has different properties from either.

The Discovery

C60 was discovered in about 1985 by Harry Kroto and Rick Smalley by accident - they were, in fact, trying to make a different a kind of molecule that they had seen floating around in space. Being scientists, they and their colleagues were rather curious about their new discovery and took a close look at it. They figured out what shape this molecule was and that it was really big - as far as most molecules go. Unfortunately, they could not prove its size because they could not make enough of the stuff. It took until 1990, when some chaps named Krätschmer, Fostiropoulos and Huffman made enough C60 that they could examine it more closely.

They proved that it looked like a football2 by showing how symmetrical it was, just as Kroto, Smalley, et al had suggested. C60 is a big spherical molecule with 60 carbon atoms in it that looks like a football, and it is hollow too, with the atoms arranged in 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. Each carbon atom is at the corner of two hexagons and one pentagon. It turned out that this crazy molecule did lots of very interesting things and lots of people have been playing with it ever since and are still discovering new things about it.

So What Does It Do?

C60 does lots of interesting things because of its shape, because of the way it spins around and wobbles, and because of the way all the electrons swim all over it. The molecule is called Buckminsterfullerene after the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, who designed wonderfully efficient, gigantic, self-supporting, beautiful geodesic domes out of triangles, hexagons and pentagons. It seems only fitting that he should be honoured in this way. Buckminsterfullerene is now known to be the simplest of a whole family of similar molecules such as C70 which looks kind of like a rugby ball, and nanotubes, which are tubes with walls made from a lattice of carbon atoms. All these compounds are called 'fullerenes'.

C60 is soluble in many organic (carbon-based) solvents and is reddish brown when dissolved in benzene, and also a rather fetching purple in chlorobenzene. The crystalline solid is dark brown and it smells a bit like caramel. However, sniffing or eating C60 is not recommended, as it's too expensive and no one knows what it could do to your insides.

So What Are its Applications?

  • It's stronger than it looks.

  • It superconducts (conducts electricity really well) when you fiddle with it enough.

  • It insulates (doesn't conduct at all) on that same token.

  • It conducts like an ordinary metal.

  • It even semiconducts (a bit like silicon) under the right conditions.

  • You can make it switch between all these states by playing with it.

  • Some pharmaceutical companies are developing products containing C60 to make you look younger. However, C60 has not been tested properly for toxicity yet.

  • Some people have made transistors out of it.

  • It's hollow, so you can wrap it around single atoms and trap them 'in a cage'.

  • Somebody went and made an amplifier using a single molecule of it.

  • It's optically active, meaning that if you put it in front of a light source, you can use it to switch the light on and off, and things like that. It can be really useful if you are a telecommunications engineer.

  • Bioactivity is another application, C60 can be made to fiddle with DNA and some sugars.

  • Because the molecule is a tiny strong sphere, it can be used as a microscopic ball bearing for very small machines.

There are more applications and a great many academic papers have been published concerning C60, but the list could become long and boring and it's growing daily. It could also be the first step into nanotechnology.

So there you have it: a molecule so new and weird, they don't even know what to do with it yet.

1Different molecular forms are known as 'allotropes'.2The spherical Association Football (soccer) type, composed of hexagons and pentagons.

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