Euro 2012 Kickoff

A spherical Buckyball

With the start of Euro 2012, today’s post looks at Buckyballs.

A Buckyball is a compound made only of carbon in the form of a sphere, looking much like a football! Buckyballs are types of Fullerenes.

Fullerenes were the subject of the 1996 nobel prize for chemistry which was awarded to Kroto, Curl and Smalley for their work in 1985. The discovery of fullerenes changed the way scientists looked at the allotropes of carbon. Previously there were Diamond and Graphite, added to this there are now a large range of different sized Buckyballs and carbon nano tubes (both known as fullerenes).

In many ways, Buckyballs are similar on a very small scale to graphite. Each carbon in a Buckyball has three covalent bonds and one delocalised electron. The structure and properties of Buckyballs mean it is currently the subject of much research in the field of anti cancer agents. Whilst Buckyballs themselves will not aid cancer treatments, it is possible to encapsulate atoms in the sphere and then under a certain frequency of light the buckyball can be made to break apart releasing the atom or atoms safely to the area that needs treatment.

How are they made?

A high voltage is applied between two graphite electrodes to allow an arc to pass across in an inert atmosphere.

Just a few years after Buckminster fullerene was originally produced by the nobel prize winning group – in 1990 – two scientists Krätchmer and Huffman developed a simple method to mass produce fullerenes in fairly large quantities (up to kilogram amounts!) The method involves producing soot, usually from two graphite electrodes igniting an arc between them in an inert atmosphere. Before dissolving the soot produced in an organic solvent and using chromatography to separate out the Fullerenes. This method has proven to be very successful and gives a very high yield.

Why the name Buckminster Fullerene?

The shape of Buckyballs is not just reminiscent of a football but, with its pattern of hexagons and pentagons, it is a molecular version of the geodesic domes designed by Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, and as it contains double C=C bonds the suffix -ene was used. (for more info on naming organics visit the functional groups page)

The Montréal Biosphere, designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller who’s name went to Buckyballs and Fullerenes

In researching topics for this page I stumbled upon an amazing discovery which relied on Buckyballs and was reported in the journal “Science.” Buckyballs were formed when a meteorite crashed into the planet and what was so incredible was that the Buckyballs encapsulated gases which when analysed were able to give huge amounts of information about the atmosphere at the time!

The science of Fullerenes is continuing to evolve at a very fast pace as new uses become more apparent and widespread, in a few years time you may find your computer chips being made from carbon nanotubes, another type of fullerene. So next time you watch a football match take a minute to think about the wonders of the molecule which looks like a football!