Musings of a Political Scientist

Fullerene (Buckyball)

3D Buckyball by Bryan Brandenburg


The fullerenes are a recently-discovered family of carbon allotropes named after Buckminster Fuller. They are molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube. Recently discovered is the “buckyegg”, by researchers at UC Davis. Spherical fullerenes are sometimes called buckyballs, the C60 variant is often compared to the typical white and black soccer football, the Telstar of 1970. Cylindrical fullerenes are called buckytubes. Fullerenes are similar in structure to graphite, which is composed of a sheet of linked hexagonal rings, but they contain pentagonal (or sometimes heptagonal) rings that prevent the sheet from being planar.

Buckminsterfullerene (IUPAC name (C60-Ih)[5,6]fullerene) is the smallest fullerene in which no two pentagons share an edge (which can be destabilizing — see pentalene). It is also the most common in terms of natural occurrence, as it can often be found in soot.


The structure of C60 is a truncated icosahedron, which resembles a round soccer ball of the type made of hexagons and pentagons, with a carbon atom at the corners of each hexagon and a bond along each edge.

The C60 molecule has two bond lengths. The 6:6 ring bonds (between two hexagons) can be considered “double bonds” and are shorter than the 6:5 bonds (between a hexagon and a pentagon).

Emerging Technology

For the past decade, the chemical and physical properties of fullerenes have been a hot topic in the field of research and development, and are likely to continue to be for a long time. Popular Science has published articles about the possible uses of fullerines in armor. Fullerines would be Ideal for this, as they are as hard or harder than diamond. In April 2003, fullerenes were under study for potential medicinal use: binding specific antibiotics to the structure to target resistant bacteria and even target certain cancer cells such as melanoma. The October 2005 issue of Chemistry and Biology contains an article describing the use of fullerenes as light-activated antimicrobial agents.

In the field of nanotechnology, heat resistance and superconductivity are some of the more heavily studied properties.

A common method used to produce fullerenes is to send a large current between two nearby graphite electrodes in an inert atmosphere. The resulting carbon plasma arc between the electrodes cools into sooty residue from which many fullerenes can be isolated.

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