Amazing potential of 'buckyballs' – for good or ill

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

Scientists have found that tiny, soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules dubbed "buckyballs" have a high potential to gather in the fatty tissue of animals. They could even migrate into fatty tissue more readily than the panned pesticide DDT, researchers suggest.

Unlike DDT, buckyballs are not known to be toxic, notes Chad Jafvert, a civil-engineering professor at Purdue University, who led the study. But the results suggest that researchers needs to get a better idea of how these tiny particles interact with the environment.

Many researchers say buckyballs, a key discovery in the field of nanotechnology, could be used in a wide range of applications, from improved drug delivery for medical patients to use in fuel cells. Given the molecule's broad technological potential, Dr. Jafvert says, it's vital to understand the affect these molecules may have on the environment. As a first cut at the fatty-tissue issue, he and a graduate student added buckballs to a mix of water and octanol, a chemical with traits similar to fatty tissue. The buckyballs, each about one-billionth of a meter in size, tended to migrate toward the octanol.

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The duo notes that because buckyballs -- along with carbon nanotubes --  react to light, they might break down in environments before animals take them up. And animals might naturally break down the molecules if buckballs get ingested. But these possibilities need to be tested, the researchers say.

The results appear in a recent issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

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