“Suppose we could find a material that is hundreds of times stronger than steel. Suppose that same material could also be used to make electronic circuits much smaller than today’s silicon-based computer chips? Well, such a material has been discovered and I was fortunate to be a member of one of the teams of scientists that discovered it – by accident.”
Bernd Eggen – SEED Foundation
Fullerenes are a range of newly found forms of carbon including carbon 60, a roundish molecule made of 60 carbon atoms If you imagine a flat sheet of graphite made round, that’s about it. It was named a fullerene or buckyball after Buckminster Fuller who invented the geodesic dome which has a similar structure. This picture is of one in Antarctica – the structure can be made any size you like from a tent to a stadium.
Back to fullerenes – how are the carbon atoms arranged?
The atoms of a C60 molecule are arranged in a shape that is exactly the same as a football.
The formal name for this shape is a truncated icosahedron. It has 32 faces, of which 20 are regular hexagons and 12 are regular pentagons. These faces come together at 60 points, or vertices. In a fullerene, there is a carbon atom at each of these vertices.
The truncated icosahedron is one of 13 Archimedean solids which you might have come across in Maths.
Have a go at making one, if you like.. Look here, download the pdf files and try to make one.
What are fullerenes, or ‘buckyballs’ used for? The answer is more and more useful things like incorporation into armour plating, because they’re so strong, also they are making quite a stir in the medical world too. Their ability to trap gases such as helium and store them, makes them suitable candidates for chemical and biological sponges. For example, when the brain is injured it releases deadly nerve toxins, which can have devastating effects on the brain. Doctors could use them as sponges to soak up all the harmful chemicals surrounding the brain. Then the chemicals would harmlessly pass through the body, without damaging any organs.
The molecule also can be tubelike. Buckytubes have been found to be a possible replacement for any narrow “tube-like” part of the body – veins, neurons, muscle, which is very exciting for medical research.
NEW! The 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics has been won by Russian-born Geim and Novoselov, both now working at Manchester University in the UK for groundbreaking work on the monolayered allotrope of carbon called graphene. It’s like graphite but a single atom thick so it looks like a flat honeycomb with amazing possibilities for electronics since it’s a fabulously good conductor and might one day be used instead of silicon chips in computers which generate a lot of heat.