In the ninth century, Chinese alchemists were attempting to make an elixir that would grant them eternal life. Yet somehow they ended up making a shocking and explosive discovery. It was found that salt peter, sulfur, and charcoal do not result in eternal life. It actually results in a volatile substance commonly known as gunpowder. While these Chinese alchemists didn’t achieve what their original goal was, they still managed to stumble upon something that would change the course of history forever. Gunpowder was later used to create firework but also to fuel the darker side of humanity and it was used in several wars that resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Some of the best inventions and discoveries in the history of mankind have happened purely by chance and without intention. Their discoverers were completely dumbfounded but somehow they had discovered a new substance or invented a new design. Much like the gunpowder of the ninth century, a pair of scientists found a new molecule that was later referred to as buckyballs. This newfound molecule defied all the previous conceptions that the scientific community had about the way that carbon molecules bonded together. In this paper, I will discuss the origin of buckyballs and how they can be applied to further the future of mankind.
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In 1984, at Rice University, a group of scientists were experimenting with a creation that they called laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus. It was in essence, a vacuum sealed metal tube that contained a hollowed out steel block. A sample of whatever was being tested was then placed into the hollowed out steel block and subsequently vaporized by an intense laser beam. The vaporized substance was then carried by a short burst of inert helium gas that moved the substance into the path of a separate laser which ionized the clusters of atoms by stripping away electrons. The resulting clusters were then forced into a mass spectrometer which gauged the size of the various clusters. This team was led by Richard Smalley and was testing many different elements, including silicone in their laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus. At the same time, a scientist named Harry Kroto was studying a form of carbon that had been believed to have been found in the dust surrounding stars. This molecule he was studying has nine carbons bonded together and he believed that it was because of the intense heat that the star was producing. This heat manipulated the carbons and allowed them to bond in unique and strange ways, such as a nine long strand of carbons. Kroto contacted Smalley and convinced him to add carbon to the list of elements to be tested because Kroto believed that the laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus would be the closest thing to replicating the heat given off by a red giant star. Due to activities at Rice, Smalley’s team was not able to complete Kroto’s request until later that year. Once they finally did, they found some very interesting structures of carbon on the other side. Most clusters were of carbon chains varying from 2-30 but there were others in intervals of ten going all the way up to 70 carbon clusters. However, the carbon clusters of 60 carbons were much more interesting to the research group mainly due to the fact that they were three times more likely to form than any of the other configurations. One rice student managed to tweak the experiment so the results yielded 40 times as much 60 carbon clusters as any other configuration of carbon atoms. Some members of the group theorized that the carbons were simply forming sandwiches out of layers of carbons very similar to the structure of carbon atoms found in graphite. However, this conclusion doesn’t make any sense due to the fact that the 60 carbon clusters were all exactly 60 carbons every time. For these carbon sandwiches to be plausible there would also be unattached chemical bonds on the edges with no way to tie them up, similar to a fraying blanket. Given these conclusions, the research team decided that there must be an alternate explanation for the strange bonding of these carbons. One unknown scientist suggested that perhaps these weren’t clusters at all but rather that they were molecules, bonded in a shape that had never been seen before. One of the researchers had seen a photo of something called Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. It was basically a hollow sphere with hexagonal shapes comprising it. The researcher proposed that the carbon sheets may have curled around to create this unique shape and form a hollow ball. Smalley went home that night and attempted to create a model on his computer that followed the 60 carbon requirement and was made entirely of hexagons. After hours of frustrating work he took a break and had a stroke of brilliance. What if the structure was more than just hexagons, what if it involved pentagons as well? He abandoned his computer program and began cutting out shapes from legal paper. He taped them together and halfway through he saw the light at the end of the tunnel and realized that he might have just found a configuration that allowed for the magic 60 vertices or carbons. The final model had 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. The shape is technically classified as a truncated icosahedron which due to its geometry has an unusually high rigidity for its light mass. Many names were thrown out for this new molecule but the eventual name was buckminsterfullerene, however, they are now commonly referred to as buckyballs, by the scientific and non-scientific communities alike. The other less interesting formations of carbons are referred to as fullerenes. However, Smalley’s team did not have enough of these buckyballs to continue their research because they couldn’t prove their structure. Many groups working in similar fields saw strange results but did not know what to blame these occurrences on. A group working in Germany at the time was experimenting with carbon in a totally different context yet their results could be interpreting as allowing for the existence of buckyballs. After reading the published findings of Smalley’s research group, this team made a minute patent adjustment that made the machine a method of producing microscopic levels of C-60, also known as buckyballs. They continued this research for several years and eventually published it. Another group of scientists caught onto this mysterious existence of C-60 and began trying to slow it down enough to accurately study it because, at room temperatures, the buckyballs spin so rapidly that it is very close to impossible to get an accurate rendering of them. They eventually slowed the buckyballs down by lowering the temperature to liquid nitrogen temperatures in an attempt to study the structures of these balls. They eventually concluded, using a scanning tunneling microscope, that the buckyballs were indeed in the shape of the suspected balls but the theory of how the carbons were linked together would have to wait until the motion of the balls could be completely stopped so that their structures could be more fully studied and proven. But the balls unique properties are what makes them so special and what draws scientific crowds from miles around.
These buckyballs have very many practical applications including yet not limited to medicine, technology, and fuel. In the field of medicine, advancements are being made extremely frequently and they always seek to improve the care that is being given to patients. With the newly developed buckyballs, the potential for medicinal uses are unlimited. Some scientists have found a way to effectively trap something inside of the C-60 molecule. At around 600 C bonds in the molecule start to cleave and it is possible to stuff another element inside of the ball and keep it trapped there as the temperature lowers and the bond returns back to its normal or ground state. One gas, radon, has been considered because it could fit inside of a buckyball and it would be effective at fighting cancer. The carbon coating surrounding the radon atom would keep it safe until it reached the tumor and would be able to effectively deal with the cancer cells. However, there are other uses of buckyballs in medicine that do not involve stuffing anything inside of them, rather all that is required is the actual balls themselves. When excited by light, the buckyballs have the potential to create singlet oxygen which is actually toxic to the molecules found in some tumors, which means that we wouldn’t even have to put anything with them except for light. This would be revolutionary because it would completely change the way we view a cancer diagnosis and how devastating cancer can be. Another potential use for buckyballs is in technology. Scientists are currently researching ways to implement buckyballs as a part of a quantum computing device. In this device, nitrogen and phosphorous atoms are trapped inside of buckyballs and their nuclear spins contain quantum bits of information. Called qubits, the computer can interact with them and read the information contained within purely based off of the spins of the unshared pairs of electrons surrounding the molecule. Another factor in this system that makes buckyballs such an excellent choice is the tendency of molecules to be effected by outside forces and thus for their spins to change. However, the extremely high electron density around the C-60 shields it from the effects of outside charges. This means that the molecule is useful because it will store information and remain accessible for a longer period of time than other molecules would be able to. Another use in technology is using this molecule as a lubricant. Due to the geometric shape, the buckyballs will roll very easily and this makes for a very effective ball bearings. This factor combined with the fact that the buckyball has a low mass and a high strength makes for a fairly effective lubricant and one that could be applied to a multitude of various problems and help to advance the quality of technology as we know it. Finally, if all of these promising applications were not enough, C-60 could also potentially function as a fuel. Due to the fact that buckyballs can take or release hydrogen depending on the conditions, it would make a good fuel cell. NASA tried to use buckyballs to fuel one of their ion engines. An ion engine works by accelerating charged particles with electric fields. The heavier the ion is then theoretically the greater thrust that the molecule will provide. Given that Deep Space 1 used xenon, which is 12 times lighter than a buckyball Nasa thought that the balls would propel their spacecraft further than ever before but they were disappointed to learn that the buckyballs were excellent at taking electrons which means that when they got charged, they just as quickly became uncharged which was majorly ineffective in an engine where the main goal is to create ions. So while the buckyball is not the solution to every problem, it is still being tested and nobody knows what it might solve in the future.
For now buckyball production has been limited purely because of the cost to purchase one gram. As even more interest grows in the topic, hopefully these molecules will become a staple of most labs and C-60 will begin to flourish because with its continued acclaim, it could be the most influential discovery in the field of chemistry in the last 50 years. Even though the molecule was born out of sheer luck on the part of multiple groups of independent scientists, the buckyball has the potential to change the course of history forever if we choose to let it. So, as opposed to focusing on the problems that the buckyball cannot address, let us focus on its positives and its potential to revolutionize the civilized world as we know it.
- Chang, Kenneth. “A prodigious molecule and its growing pains; the soccer-ball-shaped buckyball, a molecule most commonly consisting of 60 carbon atoms, once seemed to have almost limitless potential.” New York Times, 10 Oct. 2000, p. F1. Business Collection, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A66031891/GPS?u=tel_s_tsla&sid=GPS&xid=3a776fd3. Accessed 17 May 2019.
- Morkes, John. “Buckyball research abounds.” R & D, Aug. 1991, p. 18. Business Collection, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A11190556/GPS?u=tel_s_tsla&sid=GPS&xid=af172d36. Accessed 16 May 2019.
- Stambler, Irwin. “Buckyballs studied for use as noble gas ‘containers.’ (R&D News).” R & D, Oct. 1993, p. 17. Business Collection, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A14522752/GPS?u=tel_s_tsla&sid=GPS&xid=ce1263b6. Accessed 16 May 2019.
- Yeates, Harry. “Molecular quantum computing uses electrons in Buckyballs.” Electronics Weekly, 27 Nov. 2002, p. 20. Student Resources in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A94709178/GPS?u=tel_s_tsla&sid=GPS&xid=27cc96ce. Accessed 16 May 2019.
- “Buckyball: The Magic Molecule.” Popular Science, 2 May 2016, www.popsci.com/buckyball-magic-molecule.
- “24 Unintended Scientific Discoveries.” 24 Important Scientific Discoveries That Happened by Accident | Mental Floss, 2 May 2015, mentalfloss.com/article/53646/24-important-scientific-discoveries-happened-accident.
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