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What is Carbon 60 (C60) and Where Does it Come From?


It is difficult to avoid the discussion about carbon when you're talking about of the earth or the act of eating, breathing or existing in the universe. Carbon is all around us we are carbon-based life-forms.

In 1985 a team of scientists headed by Harold Kroto, James Heath and Richard Smalley discovered a new form of carbon it was a molecule in the shape of a soccer ball, they called it buckminsterfullerene after Richard Buckminster Fuller the architect who popularized the geodesic dome and it's also called a Buckyball for short. Chemists call it c60.

The Buckyball debut was a surprise because in the world of organic chemistry finding out carbon had an allotrope, a different physical form in which an element can exist, nobody knew about. The discovery started In 1980s where Kroto was investigating some long flexible chains of carbon that formed clouds in interstellar space and wanted to look at some of them close up the challenge was they were in space. As a result he needed to figure out how to make them himself.

With the help of a laser it became possible to completely break carbon-carbon bonds down to the carbon atoms. Within these experiments they found some of the carbon atoms had bonded into extremely stable carbon molecule and it didn't react easily with other molecules which is unusual because a single carbon atom has four spare electrons that it can use to make bonds with other atoms. The fact that this new molecule wasn't very reactive meant that each of these 60 carbon atoms to have three of their electrons occupied with other carbons and only one electron free they realize that for this to be the case the atoms had to be arranged in some kind of spherical carbon cage kind of like the geodesic dome that Buckminster Fuller had devised back in 1954 and just like in a European football the bonds had to be a mixture of 12 Pentagon's and 20 hexagons in order for the cage to close completely.

They discovered a brand-new form of carbon fullerenes or spherical carbon molecules. C60 and a little C70 were the most common products of that first experiment other carbon clusters have since been hypothesized and later proven to exist like C76 C78 C84 and so on. Studying fluorines for the last 30 years has led us to realize that buckyballs are all around us they occur naturally but sparingly here on earth you can find them in the soot from a candle or around a place where lightning is struck we've also figured out the clouds of buckminsterfullerene are pretty common in space and solid c60 has recently been discovered around a pair of star 6,500 light-years away from Earth but here on this planet it's taken a while to get a bead on exactly what C60 can do for us especially because it's very expensive to make.

C60 has a lot of flexibility and a high electrical conductivity and even though it's really soft under normal conditions C60 can be compressed between two Diamond tips at 320 thousand times atmospheric pressure to create a substance so hard it condensed diamond the hardest substance on earth and according to new research published in March buckyballs might soon find widespread use in medicine so we may be hearing a lot more about the buckyball in the near future.