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Chemists Keep an Eye on the `Buckyball'

Sphere-shaped carbon molecule has potential for diverse materials

By Mark Holman TurnerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 1991



TUCSON, ARIZ.

IT's nothing unusual for chemists and physicists to tinker with elements like cooks, to find new combinations and form new compounds. But when the discovery is a recipe to make a new form of carbon - one of the most common elements and a basic building block of life and much of what we eat, make, and use - it's perhaps reason for a bit of excitement.

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Add an aesthetic appeal - the new form is shaped like a soccer ball - and the whole world can identify with what might normally be the scientifically esoteric. Stir in a dash of intrigue - the recipe was lost, then found. Add a pinch of unconventionality - it was discovered outside the normal scientific grant process. And it all adds up to Carbon 60, also known as Buckminsterfullerine, because its geometry is like a geodesic sphere and no less novel.

``It took a while to sink in, but we finally realized that we are probably the first people on earth to ever see this stuff,'' says University of Arizona physicist Donald Huffman, recalling when he and his co-discoverers glimpsed at the crystals formed by the 60-atom molecule. ``It's like suddenly discovering a three-dimensional benzene ring.''

Dr. Huffman was referring to the versatile hexagonal molecule of six carbons and six hydrogens that is a fundamental industrial material, with uses in making nylon, epoxy resins, detergents, oil additives, drugs, dyes, wood preservatives, and aspirin. Others compare ``buckyball'' (as Carbon 60 is also known) to boron, another element whose caged forms have produced a rich chemistry with numerous applications.

Huffman and longtime colleague Wolfgang Kr"atschmer of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, and their graduate students, Lowell D. Lamb and Konstantin Fostiropoulos, published their recipe and a confirmation of the structure of ``buckyball'' last year. Since then, chemists have hailed the development as a start of a new, diverse field of materials science, as promising as the uses of the other two forms of solid carbon: diamond and graphite.

``We have run into a new material with incredible prospects,'' says Francois Diederich, an organic chemist at the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the researchers who have shown that Carbon 60 holds potential for a new class of rechargeable batteries, among other things. ``It's really something new. It's not a development out of something that was before.''

The scientific world has known of the existence of a 60-carbon molecule since chemical physicist Richard Smalley and colleagues at Rice University in Houston detected its presence, predicted its soccer-ball geometry, and gave it its names in 1985. But it was known to exist only in minute quantities under special laboratory conditions - until the Arizona/Germany announcement in Nature magazine in September.

NOW, Dr. Smalley says, Carbon 60 may turn out to be the oldest molecular substance in the universe, because its resistance to breakdown by light may have allowed molecules of it to endure since their original formation. And already improved methods of producing it hold promise to make it a bulk commodity.

``It's really quite bizarre that this late into the history of mankind that we've found a third form of carbon that is available in such large amounts,'' Smalley says. ``And that virtually guarantees that it will have major technological applications.''

That was evident in late November, just two months after the Arizona/Germany announcement, when a Materials Research Society symposium in Boston drew some 500 scientists, who delivered 25 papers and stayed from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. In the crowd were researchers from International Business Machines, Exxon, Bell Laboratories, and other corporations.

``When talk turned to applications, few people were forthcoming,'' says Andrew Kaldor, director of resource chemistry at Exxon Research and Engineering. ``There's a lot of patent activity going on in this area.''