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What is buckminsterfullerene?

It is a large molecule in the shape of a soccer ball, containing 60 carbon atoms, whose structure is the shape of a truncated icosahedron (a hollow, spherical object with 32 faces, 12 of them pentagons and the rest hexagons). This molecule was named buckminsterfullerene because of the structure’s resemblance to the geodesic domes designed by American architect R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983). The molecule was formed by vaporizing material from a graphite surface with a laser. Large molecules containing only carbon atoms have been known to exist around certain types of carbon-rich stars. Similar molecules are also thought to be present in soot formed during the incomplete combustion of organic materials.

Chemist Richard Smalley (1943–2005) identified buckminsterfullerene in 1985 and speculated that it may be fairly common throughout the universe. Since that time, other stable, large, even-numbered carbon clusters have been produced. This new class of molecules has been called “fullerenes” since they all seem to have the structure of a geodesic dome. They are also popularly known as “bucky balls.” Buckminsterfullerene (C60) seems to function as an insulator, conductor, semi-conductor, and superconductor in various compounds. Although no practical application has yet to be developed for it or the other fullerenes, research is expected to result in new types of materials, lubricants, coatings, catalysts, electro-optical devices, and medical applications.


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