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8. Buckyballs - Nifty 50


Buckyballs, developed by NSF-funded researchers in 1985, are a form of carbon-composed clusters of 60 carbon atoms, bonded together in apolyhedral, or many-sided structure composed of pentagons and hexagons, like the surface of a soccer ball.

The molecule, also called "buckministerfullerene," is named after U.S. architect Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) because of the resemblance of the structure to the geodesic dome, which Fuller invented.

General belief and excitement over buckyballs lies in their sheer strength for use in building materials.


NSF-funded researchers Richard Smalley, Robert Curl (both of Rice University) and Harry Kroto (University of Sussex, UK; non-NSF funded) shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of "buckminsterfullerene." James Heath, then a graduate student at Rice and now a faculty member at UCLA, also played a key role.

Subsequently, tubes of fullerenes with capped ends were also discovered. Potential applications of buckyballs or "buckytubes" are as circuit elements in nanoelectronic devices and/or molecular electronics.


There is considerable belief that in the 21st century buckyballs and buckytubes may replace silicon as the building blocks for future electronic devices in computers and communication devices. Buckytubes are also the strongest materials known and are already finding applications in composite materials, as surface coatings to improve wear resistance, and as components in scientific instruments. Buckyballs may find application in drug delivery systems.

It should be noted that support from the Army Research Office, the Robert A. Welch Foundation, NSF and the Department of Energy is acknowledged in the initial publication in Nature announcing the discovery of "buckminsterfullerene."

NASA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) have also helped fund some of Smalley's and Curl's subsequent research in this area.

Original publication date: April 2000

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